As a Field, Collective Intelligence Takes Off: A Tom Atlee Commentary

Here's a summary of a long, fascinating email I found in my inbox this morning from Tom Atlee, President of the Co-Intelligence Institute (to be added to Tom's e-mailing list, email :

Collective intelligence, as a field of study and practice, is taking off. Some really interesting work is being done, quite beyond the dialogue and deliberative democracy realms we focus on at the Co-Intelligence Institute. It turns out that even when thousands of people don't talk to each other at all, they can still be (somewhat mysteriously) collectively brilliant in solving problems. All told, there seem to be at least eight different -- and often mutually reinforcing -- types of collective intelligence, which are briefly described here. Some of the most interesting explorations of this field come from five sources we've recently bumped into?…

1. WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT? magazine's May-July 2004 issue on the
theme "Come Together! The Power of Collective Intelligence"

2. James Surowiecki's book THE WISDOM OF CROWDS: WHY THE MANY ARE

3. Patricia A. Wilson's "Deep Democracy: The Inner Practice of Civic

4: Thomas Hurley's "Archetypal Practices for Collective Wisdom:
Timeless Ways of Evolving Personal and Collective Capacity"
(available in pdf form from the author at , but
may soon be posted on the <>

5. Doug Engelbart's lifetime mission to augment our collective IQ
<> -- a vision which, among other things,
has made it possible for us to send you this email...

_ _ _ _ _

Dear friends,

Think about the best and worst meetings you've attended. Think about
Congress. Think about how the peace movement makes decisions. Think
about how the Bush administration planned for the Iraq war.

All around us we see evidence that groups of people are often less
intelligent -- and occasionally more intelligent -- than their
members are as individuals.

Those who study this phenomenon often call it "collective
intelligence" (or "collective stupidity").

Collective intelligence has little to do with how smart the
INDIVIDUAL members of a group are. Groups of bright peple can be
collectively stupid (a phenomena Irwin Janis called "groupthink,"
which was rampant in Iraq war planning) -- whereas very ordinary or
dull people can, under the right circumstances, generate real wisdom.

All of us know that conversations and meetings can be productive or
crazy-making. But how many of us know that thousands of us ordinary
humans can make independent guesses or predictions about something --
and collectively average a more accurate estimate than over 90% of us
do individually.

All these realities reveal collective intelligence (or its shadow,
collective stupidity) at work.

Collective intelligence is a holy grail of social change. If we
could better understand how to support it, increase it and facilitate
it, we would be more able to effectively co-create a better world.
Doing that, of course, involves significant political, economic,
social, cultural, organizational and spiritual challenges. But the
rewards, when these challenges are successfully engaged, are

I have been exploring this subject since the late 1980s, when hardly
anyone was talking about it. Now "collective intelligence" is such a
common a phrase that Google lists 46,700 pages using it -- as well as
tens of thousands of other pages using comparable terms like
"collective IQ," "collective wisdom," "community intelligence,"
"group intelligence," and so on.

And I am truly amazed at the number of different KINDS of collective
intelligence people are talking about, and the number of different
perspectives they have on the subject. Furthermore, their
explorations of this topic are becoming more sophisticated every
year. I now find myself surrounded by the population of a busy city
in a once-raw territory I helped pioneer, often meeting other
pioneers I didn't even know were there at the beginning, so vast and
undeveloped was the landscape back then.

Three of my own recent contributions to this work are on the
Collective Intelligence Blog (weblog)
<> where I
discussed eight forms of collective intelligence people seem to be
talking about:

* Reflective collective intelligence. This includes efforts by
groups, organizations and communities to consciously use their
diversity as a resource to address common concerns. Here we find all
those great methods for dialogue and deliberation

* Structural collective intelligence. This is generated by official
standards, architectural and community designs, laws, institutions,
and other social systems that help people's collective behaviors add
up to something that makes sense instead of frustrating them or
creating more problems. For example, statistics that reveal how
healthy and happy a community is generate more collective
intelligence than those (such as Gross Domestic Product) that measure
only how much money gets spent.

* Evolutionary collective intelligence. This is the learned wisdom
and workable patterns that we find embedded in cultures (e.g., myths
and proverbs) and ecosystems (e.g., the field of biomimicry
<>), as well as in society's
great collective learning enterprises like scientific, academic and
thinktank research activities that cultivate ever-expanding fields of
evolving knowledge.

* Informational collective intelligence. This form of collective
intelligence is generated by the fact that so much information is
available to so many people through media, libraries, the Internet,
networks of associates, and so on. Some information technology
visionaries speak of this as "the global brain"

* Noetic -- or consciousness-based -- collective intelligence.
Prophets, mystics, shamans, clairvoyants and everyday meditators
often connect with levels of reality or sources of wisdom beyond
normal awareness, usually realms of deep kinship, wholeness or
Oneness. As more people develop these special modes of consciousness
-- individually and together -- tapping into (or attuning to) such
transpersonal realms is becoming more common.

* Flow -- or mutual-attunement-based collective intelligence. Here
we may find a top improvisational jazz group or basketball team
acting as one coherent smoothly-functioning entity. Here we also
find intelligent flocking behaviors and hive dynamics in nature. In
each case, the group just hums productively along. And in flowing
human groups, individual capacities and uniqueness are often enhanced
by the process.

* Statistical collective intelligence. This odd phenomenon arises
from the fact that, under the right conditions, dozens or thousands
of people, ants, and even virtual "agents" (entities that exist only
in computers) can arrive at brilliant solutions to their problems
without even communicating with each other, simply by "covering the
territory" or averaging out their behaviors or guesses.

* Relevational collective intelligence. Here we find answers that
seem to appear in our midst almost from nowhere, simply because they
are relevant -- often by one person MISunderstanding what another
person says, or by "accidentally" stumbling on the exact vital
information in a newspaper. Search engines attempt to engineer this,
but it often happens mysteriously in life.

In the Co-Intelligence Institute, we do a lot of work with the first
four types of collective intelligence, because we believe they are
basic to creating a wise democracy. However, other people focus on
other forms of collectived intelligence, with good reasons of their

And now that I've painted the big picture of this rapidly emerging
field, I want to alert you to several remarkable people and documents
I've seen recently. I can't recommend them highly enough. I've
provided some summaries and commentary below so you don't HAVE to
read them. But if you are at all interested in this topic, I think
every one of them will excite you. Additional links are peppered
throughout to further spice up your explorations.

Enjoy them all. They are true treasures!


= = = = =

1. WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT? magazine's May-July 2004 issue on the
theme "Come Together! The Power of Collective Intelligence"

Here you will discover collective intelligence in Los Angeles Lakers
basketball games, Blue Angels navy airshows, corporate boardrooms,
rock concerts, beehives, bird flocks, international diiplomacy,
women's circles and spiritual visions.

The long, thoroughly amazing lead article by Craig Hamilton is one of
the most comprehensive overviews of the field currently available.
It describes many of the leading players, such as
* The Fetzer Institute <>, who sponsored the
folks who produced the Collective Wisdom Initiative website
<> -- another remarkable
* Rupert Sheldrake and his theory of morphogenic fields
* The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation
* David Bohm and his work with Dialogue
* Juanita Brown and David Isaacs of The World Cafe
and dozens of others. It also feautres Peter Senge and Otto Scharmer
et al <>, whose work on presencing
<> is covered further in another
article in the issue.

The lead article goes on to explore hot issues like the role of the
individual, of diversity, of synergy, of common ground and of "group
fields" and spirit in generating collective intelligence. It notes
the special capacity of collective intelligence to embrace more of
the whole picture in any given situation. It also wonders aloud if
all this emerging collective intelligence activity may, in fact,
herald a major evolutionary breakthrough for humanity. We find
transcendent spiritual realities comingling naturally with deep
dialogue about the important issues of life, bringing people in touch
with their "authentic selves" and releasing levels of creativity
they've seldom experienced before. "In light of the remarkable
potentialities emerging in our midst," concludes Hamilton, "it is
hard to imagine a possibility more worthy of our collective

Other articles cover the scientific evidence for collective
consciousness; the remarkable audience-performer synergies at
Grateful Dead, Beatles and Paul McCartney concerts; an interview with
NBA coach Phil Jackson about spiritual group intelligence possible in
basketball; and a conversation between Ken Wilber and Andrew Cohen
that includes reflections on how our Authentic Self is grounded in
our collective evolutionary potential.

WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT? has established a fascinating web page on
collective intelligence at <>, which
currently includes audio interview excerpts with a number of
explorers in this field (including me).

I urge you to buy this landmark issue from an alternative newstand or
magazine rack before supplies run out, or to order it directly online
at <>. It is well worth the US$ 7.50 it
costs. You might even like to subscribe to WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT?
because collective intelligence promises to keep resurfacing over and
over in it. The topic isn't an academic one for the team that
produces the magazine. This extraordinary group also happens to be
doing leading-edge explorations of collective intelligence,
themselves -- using their own daily life together as the laboratory.

= = = = =


This just-released book promotes the idea that "together all of us
know more than any one of us does." Its collection of amazing
collective intelligence stories is somewhat slanted towards the
perspective of markets (Surowiecki is financial columnist for THE NEW
YORKER) but reaches far beyond that.

Surowiecki shows how diverse crowds of people can guess how many
beans are in a bottle -- or how many pounds of meat are in a steer,
or the correct answer to a quiz show question, or the exact
temperature in a room, or even how future events will turn out --
with COLLECTIVELY uncanny accuracy -- usually well over 90 percent --
even when most of the individual answers are way off.

He describes a computer experiment where virtual "agents"
(artificially intelligent electronic entitities generated by a
computer program) learned their way through a maze after three or
four attempts. But when their first-try paths (which were all wrong)
were COMBINED (that is, overlaid over each other on the maze), the
majority decision at each turn of the maze -- a path NONE of the
individual agents took -- traced one of the shortest paths through
the maze.

THE WISDOM OF CROWDS stresses the vital role of diversity in
collective intelligence, noting political scientist Scott Page and
organizational theorist James March's research on the subject.
Surowiecki also hightlights the importance of independence (no
conformity dynamics), decentralization (no one in charge or
dominating), and "a way of summarizing people's opinions into one
collective verdict." He cites fascinating research, as well, on
successful and unsuccessful small group deliberations.

The one significant shortcoming in this book, in my view, occurs in
the chapter on Democracy. Surowiecki wonders whether "democracy is
actually an excellent vehicle for making intelligent decisions and
uncovering the truth." As much as he seems to want to believe that,
he can't seem to decide that it is true. Like most people, he
doesn't know about citizen deliberative councils and is seemingly
blinded by the myth that democracy is mostly about elections and
representation. After musing about whether or not citizens are
basically self-interested, about the expense of James Fishkin's
deliberative polling projects, about the difficulties of turning over
decision-making to experts and how tricky it is to nail down "the
common good," Surowiecki concludes that the wisdom of democracy is
not in its policy decisions but in its processes. It is the wisdom
of compromise and peaceful change. "The decisions that democracies
make may not demonstrate the wisdom of the crowd," he says. "The
decision to make them democratically does."

This is fine, as far as it goes. But, faced with the 21st Century's
overwhelming problems, we need more than that. If we want democracy
to survive, we need to tap the wisdom of our citizenry to solve those
problems and find sensible policies. Luckily, it is possible to do
that, and we can invite James Surowiecki to join us in that

In the meantime, I know of no better resource for tracking the
fascinating world of statistical collective intelligence than his
remarkable new book.

= = = = =

3. Patricia A. Wilson's "Deep Democracy: The Inner Practice of Civic

In Wilson's powerful, inclusive model of collectively intelligent
"deep democracy," people's feelings of alienation are transformed
into an experience of interconnectedness through co-creative
engagement in the civic arena. Individuality and community dance
together for mutual benefit, moving from dialogue to collective
learning, then to collective will and vision, and finally to
collective co-creativity that actualizes the vision -- only to return
to civic dialogue for reflection and renewal, beginning the dance
anew at a higher level.

Such engagement produces a participatory consciousness and sense of
oneness that has tremendous value in itself, quite in addition to the
blessings of collective accomplishment in the life of the community.
With practice, it weaves itself into the community's culture and
becomes a wellspring of individual and collective meaning.

Facilitative process leaders and social process technologies are keys
to catalyzing this dynamic. Wilson's article includes one of the
internet's rare lists of "social technologies for civic engagement"
-- organized into four categories: Deliberation, Dialogue,
Collaborative Action and Community Conflict Resolution. Each is
described in brief but insightful detail. In addition, Wilson
describes the leading edge of deep democracy which includes
innovations in facilitation, communication, decision-making and peer
learning communities.

She closes her short but compelling article with the "depth
dimension" of civic engagement, her favorite and central dimension.
She describes it as depth "not downward but inward, moving deeper
toward collective attunement to the inner source of knowing." In
this deep realm she joins WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT? in citing the work
of Rupert Sheldrake and Otto Scharmer,* as well as William Isaacs
work on profound change <>,
Allan Kaplan's on co-creativity*
and mine on co-intelligence <>. She
also acknowledges the depth dimension of traditional tribal talking
circles and ritual circles which can "lead directly to the inner
experience of knowing the whole through group attunement and

For our individual practice she suggests we start with "cultivating
just one habit of deep democracy: to smile and listen to understand
the 'other' before advocating a position."

* In a note to me, Wilson described Otto Scharmer's template for
group sensing of the emergent future, which he calls the U model.
"Starting at the top of the U with discussion (where we are blind to
our mental models), the conversation gets deeper as it goes down the
left hand side of the U with reflective listening and sensing (of
external information as well as thoughts, assumptions, feelings)
until at the bottom of the U we get to presencing [pre-sensing,
becoming present to a just-now emerging future]. Silence and shifts
in the felt sense play a role here. And then the emergent,
evolutionary, action-oriented (Scharmer calls it prototyping) phases
moving up the right hand side of the U. So instead of jumping from
discussion to action, the U model is about deepening the place from
which we know and allowing the knowing to emerge. Such knowing then
manifests in actions."

In another note, Wilson quoted from Allan Kaplan's chapter on
participants in the unfolding and becoming of those with whom we
work; it is through them that we unfold and emerge. This is the
essence of co-creation. With such a sense of co-responsibility we
can indeed help to develop, enlarge, and make more human, the social
fabric which surrounds and nurtures us like the membrane of a womb."

= = = = =

4: Thomas Hurley's "Archetypal Practices for Collective Wisdom:
Timeless Ways of Evolving Personal and Collective Capacity"
(available in pdf form from the author at , but
may soon be posted on the <>

This remarkable piece is another of the class of advanced approaches
to group work that features individual practice. It realizes that
one individual who connects to deep realms (what Hurley calls "the
archetypal realm of human experience") can then, through their
authentic interactions with a group, transform the awareness and
activity of that group in positive ways. They carry wisdom from the
depths to feed the common good. And they are not necessarily
exceptional people. They merely take seriously the personal
practices that nurture this capacity. Therein lies the potential
gift of such practices for democracy: We can all share in bringing
this capacity to our common work of accessing and crafting the
collective wisdom we need to meet the challenges we face.

Hurley offers sixteen practices presented in eight pairs. I balked
at his model's overall complexity and at various similarities among
the sixteen practices. I found myself wanting to summarize them, to
pull them together into one practice, perhaps like this: "We see and
engage openly with what is most authentically and vividly present in
and around us -- intentions, feelings, truths, shadows, nuances,
boundaries, the realities of others... -- sharing clearly what we
experience and moving powerfully and lovingly with its rhythms."

But even if that captures 80 or 90 percent of what he's saying, it
short-circuits an important dimension of his contribution. His
brilliant way of dividing the needed capacity into different
practices adds insight and power by introducing a certain creative
tension: Each of his practices has a complementary practice that
seems to contradict it in some way. The Taoist tension between them
creates a psychological space wherein much deepening work can be done.

The further I progressed through Hurley's paper, the more the
different dimensions of the work showed up inside each other and
echoed back and forth, building a sense of rich and rewarding
challenge. At the end I had to admit that his model has an energized
integrity: As with a good story, the dancing parts are greater than
any clever summary of the whole. As he says of one of his practices:
"Being with all that arises means embracing these tensions, rather
than trying to eliminate ambiguity or reduce complexity prematurely
to make ourselves comfortable."

Many of Hurley's articulations are gems of concise wisdom. "A strong
stand is flexible and open, not inflexible and closed -- a form
enabling interaction with the world, not a position foreclosing it."
"Inquiry need not cease while we act, even when time presses; we can
embed inquiry into our action."

"Staying in the fire means letting ourselves cook....When our bodies
are filled with overpowering emotion or the group field is charged
with tension, we stay conscious and work with what is arising instead
of acting out. We contain and ground the electricity that runs
through us like lightning, seeking a target." "If I cannot endure the
darkness in myself, I will see it only in others. If we cannot
acknowledge the shadow in a group, we will close ranks and only see
it in the world beyond ... In avoiding bitter truths, we cripple

Hurley's centeredness in the inner life is obviously balanced by
extensive experience in real-world groups and organizations, which
are brought to life in riveting stories which illustrate each
practice. He knows the importance of diversity, of good group
process, of co-intelligent social institutions and commitment to
global transformation. He also knows that "even when we commit
ourselves in good faith and work diligently, the process is rarely
stress-free." But he notes that committed work increases our
capacity to more competently and creatively engage with both the
shadow and the light, ultimately empowering us to "play the whole
game magically."

At that point leadership becomes transformed "from a compulsion to
control others and drive a system to a passion for creating contexts
in which all can thrive, ever more fully experiencing their
individual and collective genius." In so doing, suggests Hurley, we
become "more interesting partners for God."

= = = = =

5. Doug Engelbart's lifetime mission to augment our collective IQ

Few people have heard of Doug Engelbart <>.
Most of those who have, know him as the inventor of the computer

But his inventions include far more than that. Over 30 years ago --
back when computers were programmed with punch cards and output was
on printouts -- he and his team developed an integrated system for
electronic collaboration that included much that we now take for
granted -- not only the mouse, but cathode ray tube displays of text,
a consistent graphical user interface (windows), display editing
(black on white word processing), integrated text and graphics,
outline editors for idea development, hyper-documents (links),
e-mail, online help, user configurability and programmability,
asynchronous collaboration among teams in different locations, and
two-way video-conferencing. Remember: This was way before there
were personal computers.

And it was all part of a larger vision. Long before the Internet or
the World Wide Web, he was imagining people "sitting in front of
displays, 'flying around' in an information space where they could
formulate and organize their ideas with incredible speed and

He didn't market his inventions -- although others did. He had a
bigger mission. "The reason I invent," he says, "is to advance the
evolution of society and its institutions. My crusade is to find
much better ways for people to work together to make this world a
better place." He insists that the proper role of computers is to
augment human intellect -- especially through increasing "collective
IQ" -- to address our global predicament.

Toward this end he founded the Bootstrap Institute "to boost
mankind's collective capability for coping with complex, urgent
problems ... in the interest of mankind as a whole."

Just as people back in 1968 struggled to comprehend his vision then,
we would do well to try to comprehend his vision today. It includes
"Dynamic Knowledge Repositories" (DKRs) -- incredibly sophisticated
online knowledge environments, sort of like living encyclopedias
where knowledge is gathered, tracked, created, recorded, used and
discussed. Technically, DKRs would be based on a higher order of
detailed hyper-linkability (new technology which Engelbart calls the
Open Hyperdocument System, or OHS) and a new order of browser -- the
Hyperscope, that would hyperlink across virtually all kinds of
documents, from email to Powerpoint presentations to audio, video and
computer-aided design (CAD) materials -- making today's system of
browsers and hyperlinks seem positively Stone Age. A domain of
knowledge could be articulated overall, with each aspect linked to
specific other information that supported and/or questioned it -- and
all of it being continually updated, while preserving its
evolutionary history -- and all of it appropriately accessible to --
and designed to engage -- users at different levels expertise and

Using this infrastructure, Engelbart envisions Networked Improvement
Communities (NICs) in each area of concern or expertise creating
Dynamic Knowledge Repositories (DKRs, those "living encyclopedias")
where collective learning could take place and be recorded for the
use of everyone in the world. Within existing learning communities
and communities of practice, he suggests developing a role called
"Knowledge Workshop Architect" to facilitate their evolution into
true Networked Improvement Communities (NICs) who can then be useful
stewards of DKRs as integrated leading-edge knowledge domains.

NICs could be developed in universities, professional societies,
businesses, philanthropic organizations, government agencies,
nonprofits, and anywhere else where concentrated collaborative work
is done and collective learning would be an asset. Engelbart
suspects that universities are the best NIC startups -- where
departments could build prototype DKRs for selected knowledge
domains. He already has two pilot efforts.

He also advocates the high-priority creation of specialized NICs
dedicated to learning how to enhance Collective IQ, itself. He
suggests that if they apply that knowledge to THEIR OWN operations,
they could thereby increase their own ability to enhance Collective
IQ in an ever-ascending spiral of capacity -- a strategy Engelbart
calls "bootstrapping" (thus the name of his institute).

A special branch of NICs could track the evolution/resolution of
issue-oriented dialogues in an Issue-Based Information System (IBIS),
graphically portraying the structure of arguments and interrelated
factors involved with a particular issue.*

Taken all together, this is truly a vision of a global brain,
designed for addressing global situations. To actually be realized,
this would probably require a massive social effort not unlike the
Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb. But what a different
difference for the world THIS Project would make!

From my own perspective, grounded in a vision of a wise
deliberation-based democracy, I find it interesting to contemplate
how citizen deliberative councils
<> could be informed
by consulting such Dynamic Knowledge Repositories, and then
participate in building them. The outcomes of citizen juries, for
example, would be valuable components of such DKRs. In a wise
democracy, the informational form of collective intelligence would
blend seamlessly and powerfully with the reflective and evolutionary
(collective learning) forms of collective intelligence.

* Two other efforts come to mind that share this vision of making full info on an issue available to the public. Robert Theobald's possibility/problem focuser
<> (and pp. 95-96 of THE TAO OF DEMOCRACY) and Robert Steele's Web-Based Virtual Intelligence Community (ref. his review of THE TAO OF DEMOCRACY on Amazon and pp. 133-135 of his NEW CRAFT OF INTELLIGENCE). Theobald notes that graduate students could play a major role in such ongoing efforts. The mapping of issue/argument structures (especially Robert Horn's work) is explored at <>.


Tom Atlee
The Co-Intelligence Institute
PO Box 493
Eugene, OR 97440

Added by Sandy on June 07, 2004