Reductionism and essence in collective intelligence and co-intelligence

Collective intelligence is more than most people in the field think it is. And co-intelligence is more than collective intelligence – since it includes collective intelligence and goes way beyond it. In this post I try to indicate the differences between these concepts, provide a taste of how big they each are, and offer a way to think about their distinct essences.

Most people in my networks think co-intelligence is another word for collective intelligence. I want to here clarify – and to stress – that co-intelligence is bigger and deeper than that. Equating it with collective intelligence is reductionist and misses the point of having these two separate and very useful terms.

So let’s start with collective intelligence. There’s reductionism in that realm, too. My experience suggests that most people don’t realize how many different varieties of “collective intelligence” there are. They think of it in terms of only one of its many manifestations, usually one they are familiar with or working with. Some of the variations of collective intelligence include:

  • what people experience during quality group conversations (like Bohmian Dialogue or citizen deliberative councils) OR
  • computer-assisted collaborations (like Wikipedia or crowdfunding) OR
  • spontaneous group “flow” (like we see in improvisational dances, great basketball teams, and bird’s flocking) OR
  • prediction markets (as described in James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, like the fact that if we average the guesses of many people estimating the number of beans in a jar, it comes out very close to the correct answer even if their individual answers are all over the map) OR
  • the capacity to “tune in” to higher forms of intelligence (as may happen during meditation or in the shamanic capacity to sense the healing properties of a plant the shaman has never seen before) OR
  • collectively generated decision-support tailored to any need at any point in time and space — blending holistic analytics, true cost economics, and open source everything engineering toward a notional 24/7 World Brain...

There are also forms of collective intelligence that few people realize are exactly that. Often they are very prosaic. Perhaps the most obvious example is the practice of science, itself. The rigorous application of the scientific method – asking a question about reality, doing careful observation, making and testing a hypothesis about it, developing theory around what happened, having peers critique your theory and try to replicate your tests, etc. – seeks to exercise at a collective level the kind of discernment and knowledge-building that a highly intelligent and principled individual uses to build his or her own knowledge.

In a more general sense, an entire culture’s efforts to accumulate and pass on knowledge is a form of collective intelligence. This includes language and communication – words, writing, printing, etc. – and all their associated phenomena, from songs and conversations to journalism, academia and libraries. It includes non-linguistic symbols – from the imagery of drawings, paintings, photographs, and videos to the “languages” of mathematics and graphic presentations. All these move, record, and manipulate information as it becomes collective knowledge that is used, tested, and revised by millions of people. In addition we have all the collective ways of sensing what’s going on, from professions like journalism and science, to sensor technologies, to democratic freedoms and transparency laws, to modern methods of crowdsourcing – all adding up to the collective equivalent of society’s sense organs – the eyes and ears, nose and skin of an entire civilization, drawing information into the collective thinking of the whole system. These are obviously facets of a society’s capacity to collectively learn and apply knowledge, but they are seldom recognized or described as “collective intelligence”.

Sometimes collective intelligence is palpably experienced at a very personal level, as in certain group processes or meditations. At other times it is just present in the everyday functioning of a collective entity, as in the deliberations of a functional democracy. (Of course, wherever we can find collective intelligence, we can find collective stupidity, as well.)

Once all this is considered, we realize that the term “collective intelligence” CAN be used to describe many things that seem quite different from each other. But they all seem to manifest a kind of intelligence that comes from our connections and interactions with each other and/or with some intelligence that is higher or deeper than our individual minds.

For more about the varieties of collective intelligence, see


As big and broad as the concept of collective intelligence is – and as central as it is to co-intelligence – co-intelligence encompasses more. The idea of co-intelligence embraces, features, and weaves together ALL the forms of collective intelligence – AND it also describes phenomena and capacities that don’t readily fit into any category of “collective intelligence”. Here are two examples of co-intelligence, just to highlight the point:

  • Permaculture. Permaculture is an ecological design science that works with the principles and realities of interdependent, synergistic ecosystems to generate more life and yield by paying attention to the needs, relationships, and contexts of the organisms involved, including the people. The main thing that makes permaculture co-intelligent is its spirit of working WITH aliveness, rather than trying to dominate, control or merely exploit it. This approach – which involves a lot of empathic observation and humility – causes less harm and requires less material and energy to produce more output. Smart!!
  • Internalization of costs. This involves estimating how much money is lost or needs to be spent to deal with the social and environmental damages caused by the creation, distribution, use, consumption and disposal of a product or service. Those costs are then added into the purchase price of that product or service. A much discussed example is the carbon tax where the costs of dealing with CO2 emissions and their consequent climate disruption are included (through a tax) in the price of oil, gas, and coal (and thence into the prices of products and services that use such fossil fuels). Internalization of costs makes harmful products and services more expensive than harmless ones, thus favoring the benign ones in the market. Interestingly, THAT makes the “invisible hand” of the market into something that heals the world instead of destroying it. So this new economic input (which combines information and motivation in one stroke) is a structural, systemic adjustment that causes the entire economic system to function with more intelligence and wisdom – in other words, with more co-intelligence.

So what makes all these things into manifestations of one bigger thing? What holds co-intelligence together as a concept?

The answer is wholeness.

Co-intelligence is intelligence that derives from the whole and/or wholeness – especially when it serves the whole and/or wholeness. That seems very abstract, so let’s unpack those concepts a bit:

“The whole” can refer to all kinds of things – a whole community or country (or relationship or team or company)… a whole situation (including all the factors and people involved)… a whole ecosystem or biosphere… the whole of Life or Spirit or cosmic consciousness… even a whole individual, in all their facets and dimensions integrated into one vibrant being. Intelligence resides in, can manifest from, and can bring benefit to all these things – all these “wholes” – and thus we can find, develop and use co-intelligence in all these realms.

So what about wholeNESS? Like “the whole”, the term “wholeness” can refer to many seemingly different things – especially things like health and integrity, synergy and resonance. It can refer to things like beauty, truth, and sacredness. It can refer to inclusiveness and empathy and understanding. It can mean interconnectedness, interactivity, mutual aid and co-creativity. It can refer to reality when it is taken in – or taken into consideration – in all its fullness. It can mean the way a whole is greater than the sum of its parts… AND the way a part is more than its mere role in any whole it is part of … AND the ways a part can contain the whole (as in fractals or “the god within us”)… AND the ways a whole and its parts can reflect each other and connect even to the point of being one thing (like the wave and the ocean). Wholeness can refer to the kind of “moreness” that is built into reality: Not only is there always more going on than we know or can know – which implies mystery and values like humility, curiosity, and non-attachment – but the things I’ve listed here as aspects of wholeness are actually resources: we can use them to get more from what already exists just by treating it and arranging it in “more whole” ways (as permaculture does). In this sense, wholeness can provide us with free resources – a good thing to know when resources seem scarce.

So what’s the message here?

There’s a kind of holistic smartness that taps into the intelligence of the whole and of wholeness to sustain or enhance a whole or its wholeness. That kind of smartness is what I call co-intelligence. It is something that we can have individually, something we can generate together, AND something that we are all already immersed in. It includes collective intelligence – and a whole lot more.

This is what I hope to spend most of 2015 researching and developing so I can teach it. This is the essence of co-intelligence, in contrast with all its varieties, all the ideas about its dynamics, all the methods and tools that can enhance it, all the stories told about how it has happened. I want ordinary folks to be able to understand that essence, and the way it is so grounded in wholeness. It won’t be easy, but I think it is definitely worth trying. (Let me know if you’d like to be part of the seminars I’ll be piloting online and/or through conference calls, probably in the fall.)

For more on the basics of co-intelligence, take a look at the essays in “Co-intelligence” and “Wholeness”


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

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