How to be collectively wise

Collective wisdom – and collective folly – are not esoteric abstractions. Collective wisdom is simply our ability to take into account what needs to be taken into account for long term broad benefit, over and over. And collective folly is our tendency to fail at that, over and over. We see collective wisdom and folly in the real world around us all the time, in many different forms and realms. We live in the conditions our collective wisdom and folly generate for us.

What is tragic – given the dramatic impact collective folly is having on our collective destiny – is how little we understand, share, and teach about how to generate collective wisdom. This essay is a very short overview of the subject for your consideration. You can explore far more specifics in the Co-Intelligence Institute’s wise democracy pattern language.

The following guidelines are relatively clear and simple in principle, while being quite nuanced and challenging to practice. We can never apply all of them perfectly. But we can learn and grow into them. And we can wake up to how their violation inevitably generates collective folly and often disaster.

FIRST GUIDELINE. Avoid factors that are obviously foolish – dynamics and behaviors likely to limit our ability to take into account what needs to be taken into account for long term broad benefit. These include (but are definitely not limited to) arrogance, unacknowledged bias, conformity, rashness, life-degrading domination or abuse, and manipulative narrow self-interest. All these will help generate collective folly in human groups and systems.

SECOND GUIDELINE, Include anything that will help us adequately consider what needs to be taken into account, such as quality information, consideration of diverse perspectives, expanded empathy, and systems thinking. Aspire to include the following:

  • every obviously relevant fact, factor, perspective, and so on;
  • whatever may not be obvious to us, but may be obvious to people different from us, whom we thus include to help us see more fully;
  • whatever aspects may be nuanced or beyond our normal scope of consideration that may be relevant;
  • ways of perceiving, thinking, feeling, and engaging that are different from our usual approaches.

It is hopefully clear from this list that collective wisdom involves consciously moving beyond – not just reinforcing – our familiar, limited frames of reference.

THIRD GUIDELINE. Develop from all this a larger sense of what’s real, meaningful and possible. We can achieve this primarily through generative dialogue among diverse people and perspectives, especially supported by techniques for deeper, broader, more accessible understanding and narrative engagements as well as through spiritual and psychological exercises. There are many excellent approaches for achieving helpful big-picture insights.

FOURTH GUIDELINE. Take action based on such broader understandings, alert to what happens as a result.

FIFTH GUIDELINE. Learn from reality about the wisdom of our actions. Be open to feedback – or actively solicit it. Study what happens – results, impacts, outcomes. Periodically deliberate newly on topics that have already been addressed. By such efforts as these, reality will reveal important overlooked factors and offer new insights and possibilities.

SIXTH GUIDELINE. Humbly adjust what we are doing, in order to account for new factors and changing conditions. Collective wisdom is largely about ongoing responsiveness to new realities and understandings within a big-picture context. It never simply arrives in eternal certainties which, while providing clarity, can also act as cognitive traps.

In actual practice, these seemingly diverse and sequential dimensions of collective wisdom need to be attended to simultaneously. We need to sense into them as a whole and seek to practice them as a whole.

And at this point in human development, it is critical to realize not only that these dynamics and capacities are vital for collective wisdom, but that much work has already been done to understand and develop them, in many diverse fields, including many visions and experiments with new democratic institutions. To a large degree these fields and visions just need to be reframed within the shared purpose of generating collective wisdom, at which point they all become far, far greater than the current sum of their individual insights and efforts, transforming into what is probably the most valuable collective capacity we could have for our future.


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Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440
Calling forth the wisdom of the whole for the wellbeing of the whole

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