Collective intelligence is only one-sixth of co-intelligence

Many people assume that co-intelligence and collective intelligence are the same thing. They aren’t. Co-intelligence includes collective intelligence plus a whole lot more – from multi-modal intelligence and collaborative intelligence to resonant intelligence, wisdom, and universal intelligence. In this post I explore them all and share some facets of collective intelligence that many people don’t realize. Finally, I challenge those of us who specialize in increasing the collective intelligence of organizations – especially corporations – to pay attention to the impact of our work on the wellbeing and co-intelligence of the human and natural systems in which we and the organizations are embedded. We need to reflect on some questions…

Expanding Collective Intelligence and Beyond

The term “collective intelligence” has come into increasing use since the early 1990s, especially among organizational consultants. But the earliest use of the phrase I’ve seen was in Paul Hawken, James Ogilvy and Peter Schwartz’s 1982 book Seven Tomorrows. These folks offered a broader vision for it:

We need a collective intelligence of a kind that may not
have characterized the human species in the past; but we
see no reason to believe that … a whole population cannot
reach a stage of mature self-consciousness much as an
individual does.

Bantam, p. 9

That remarkable paragraph applies the idea of collective intelligence to “a whole population.” It invites us, four decades into its future, to think beyond “group intelligence” and “learning organizations” to larger phenomena like community wisdom and societal intelligence.

Today I want to extend that reach even further – and then to deepen and enrich it so that it can move beyond the IQ-tethered smartness glorified by our culture into fuller, more holistic realms of intelligence.

The holistic intelligence I will describe in this essay I call co-intelligence. It includes collective intelligence plus a whole lot more – multi-modal intelligence, collaborative intelligence, resonant intelligence, wisdom, and universal intelligence. At least! I’ll explore all of them briefly below and explain why we need them all – not just to safely bring collective intelligence into organizations but to salvage our sick civilization.

Before exploring the other facets of co-intelligence, I’d like to say a few more words about my view of collective intelligence.

Collective Intelligence is Systemic, not Individual

First, I see collective intelligence primarily as a systemic phenomenon. We could even refer to it as “systemic intelligence” – the intelligence of whole systems. Many people erroneously assume that “collective intelligence” means that a group or system is made up of many smart people, and that collective intelligence is achieved by simply gathering all those intelligent individuals together. While this is certainly a piece of the picture, it is only a piece, and not nearly as important as you probably expect.

In fact, most of a system’s intelligence resides not in its individual parts, but in its characteristics – its structures and processes, its relationships and operational habits, its culture or personality, its fields of energy and aliveness, its reservoirs and flows of information, the stories it tells itself, and more. It’s real: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. So the collectIVE intelligence of the whole is greater than the collectED intelligence of its parts.

So I want to stress here that the patterns of relationship and interactivity among parts of an intelligent system are key. Individual intelligences play a real but very partial role in the generation of collective intelligence.

It’s all connected

Next I want to point out here that collective intelligence (and collective stupidity!) show up at different systemic levels – individual, relational, group, organizational, community, cultural, societal, species, etc. And, significantly, these levels are interdependent, interlocking, and mutually influential.

Thus, in that web of interconnected levels of collective intelligence, the intelligence of any level or part is influenced by the intelligence of the systems in which it is embedded. Likewise, each system’s intelligence is influenced by – though not determined by – the intelligence of its parts.

This means that the structures of a system can enhance or impede the intelligence of its parts – and the way those parts apply their intelligence can enhance or impede the intelligence of the entire system.

It’s all connected.

You’ve Seen It

You’ve almost certainly seen both of these phenomena in meetings. A few brilliant people – especially leaders – fighting, undermining each other, dominating or suppressing communication in a group can lock up everyone else’s contributions and stultify the collective intelligence of the whole group.

This contrasts with real dialogue in which each person’s comments stimulate creative responses from the others. Dialogue is the kind of systemic pattern that enhances the intelligence of the individual dialoguers AND the intelligence of their group.

Applying Collective Intelligence to Individuals

Before leaving the subject of collective intelligence, though, I want to note something odd and important, that seems to contradict something I said earlier: Collective intelligence applies to each of us individually, as well as to groups and organizations.

The American poet Walt Whitman famously proclaimed, “I contain multitudes.” All of us have multiple urges, voices, and capacities – and often whole sub-personalities – active or latent within us. To the extent each of us integrates our inner diversity – through synergy or internal dialogue – we enhance our personal collective intelligence. Internal family systems therapy offers an interesting application of that understanding.

And now we turn to co-intelligence and its second facet, after collective intelligence:

Multi-modal Intelligence

Multi-modal intelligence is the ability to engage our full spectrum of intelligence capabilities – e.g., rationality, intuition, narrative, intra- and inter-personal sensibilities (often called emotional intelligence), and so on. The most famous of the dozens of articulations of this are studies of “left and right brain” phenomena and the “multiple intelligence” theories of Harvard’s Howard Gardner. Each of us has a different profile of the diverse qualities that make up our potential and actual multi-modal intelligence. And each of us faces the challenge of integrating our strengths while strengthening and compensating for our weaknesses.

We face the same challenge collectively: Too often the intuitives fight the analysts who fight those who learn and think by doing, etc. To the extent human systems integrate such diverse gifts of their members, the presence of diversity enhances their collective intelligence. To the extent systems feed the fragmentation or opposition of their diverse members, they end up co-stupid.

It is of the utmost importance that we recognize and nurture all of the varied human intelligences If we can mobilize the spectrum of human abilities, not only will people feel better about themselves and more competent; it is even possible that they will also feel more engaged and better able to join the rest of the world community in working for the broader good.

Howard Gardner, Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice (HarperCollins, 1993)

Which brings us to the third facet of co-intelligence:

Collaborative Intelligence

Collaborative intelligence is the ability to work with the people and life around us, and to get them to work together. We can observe collaborative intelligence in a phenomena called “flow” (exemplified by good teamwork and jazz improvisation), in the elegant and nonviolent victories of Aikido masters, and in ecological practices like composting and permaculture which work with the forces of nature to achieve human ends with little energy input or waste.

Collaborative intelligence is the ability to produce synergy in one’s environment or in one’s relationship with that environment. Dialogue, for example, requires the exercise of collaborative intelligence by people working together towards greater shared understanding.

Rather than asking, ‘What can I get from this land, or person?’ we can ask, ‘What does this person, or land, have to give if I cooperate with them?’ … Everything is a positive resource; it is up to us to work out how we may use it as such.

Bill Mollison, Permaculture: A Practical Guide for a Sustainable Future (Island Press, 1990)

The fourth manifestation of co-intelligence is:

Resonant Intelligence

Resonant intelligence is intelligence that grows stronger or fuller as it resonates with other sources or forms of intelligence, or which deepens in empathic response to life. Resonance is an energetic response among similar things, which arises from their similarity, especially in the absence of barriers to that response. A vibration in one tuning fork sets off the same vibration in a similar tuning fork – the nearer it is, the stronger the response. A memory shared by one war veteran sets off a flurry of memories in another veteran from the same war – especially in a supportive group setting where participants have come to know themselves and one another well, and thus have lowered the psychological and interpersonal barriers that could block resonance.

Resonant intelligence becomes especially important in finding solutions grounded in what I call “the core commons” – our deep relatedness to each other and the natural world.

Our availability to each other, our ability to dream each other’s dreams and experience each other’s biographies is part of the interpenetrating wave of the current time… We are being rescaled to planetary proportions, as we become resonant and intimate with our own depths.

Jean Houston’s online News, March 19th, 2001

The fifth factor in co-intelligence is:


I view wisdom as the ability to apply our intelligence with an expanded perspective, especially our ability to keep in mind the big picture when we’re handling the details, and to keep in mind the real lives of individuals today when we’re handling the long-term fate of whole systems. God is in the details – and in the whole.

We are wise when we think historically and take into account future generations. We are wise when we think holistically and systemically and attend to the interconnectedness of everything. We are wise when we recognize and creatively work with the ambiguity, complexity, paradox, mystery and change that are inherent in life. We are wise when we can consider a situation from both inside and outside all relevant viewpoints. We are wise when we are humble, curious and good humored. There are many ways to be wise; all involve expanding our appreciation of what’s involved, of our own limitations and of our place in the world.

Of particular importance in the face of our current existential challenges, is to expand our collective intelligence into collective wisdom.

Our greatest need at the present time is perhaps for a global ethic – transcending all other systems of allegiance and belief – rooted in a consciousness of the interrelatedness and sanctity of all life. Such an ethic would temper humanity’s acquired knowledge and power with wisdom of the kind found at the heart of the most ancient human traditions and cultures – in Taoism and Zen, in the understandings of the Hopi and the Maya Indians, in the Vedas and the Psalms, in the very origins of human culture itself.

Federico Mayor, former Director-General of UNESCO, “Crucible for a common ethic” in Our Planet 8:2, Aug 1996

The sixth aspect of co-intelligence is:

Universal Intelligence

Universal intelligence is the intrinsic tendency for things to self-organize and co-evolve into ever more intricately interwoven, healthy, and mutually compatible forms. This is what Taoism and new sciences like complexity are all about – the dynamic interaction of order and chaos, of complexity and simplicity, in the midst of which life thrives. Others might describe Universal Intelligence as the mind or will of God or Spirit.

Both perspectives derive from observing a certain intelligent pattern in the way the world is organized and/or sensing an intelligent Presence in and around us, and finding that there is guidance there. Our human intelligence is but one manifestation of this universal dynamic, and can benefit by observing or tuning in to transpersonal dimensions of knowing and moving along with their intrinsic wisdom.

The harmony of natural law… reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.

Albert Einstein, The World As I See It

These six phenomena – collective intelligence (at all its levels), multi-modal intelligence (in all its forms), collaborative intelligence, resonant intelligence, wisdom and universal intelligence – can be viewed as all facets of one thing, co-intelligence. Co-intelligence is what intelligence looks like when we take wholeness, interconnectedness and co-creativity seriously.

Co-Intelligence and Corporations

I want to see societies become co-intelligent enough to survive the challenges of the coming decades, and then flourish as co-intelligent cultures. I want to see co-intelligent organizations in co-intelligent relationship with each other, with communities and with nature.

What is the role of corporations in this vision? I say this not as a rhetorical question, but as an alive inquiry, one of the most important questions we face.

A corporation’s effectiveness is increased when its collective intelligence is enhanced. But how will it use that greater intelligence? Will its increased effectiveness be a net contribution to the survival and co-intelligence of the culture as a whole? Remember: the intelligence of one system can increase or undermine the intelligences of the larger systems it is embedded in and of the smaller systems that are part of it.

Collectively, corporations may well constitute the most powerful force shaping the future of humankind and hundreds of other species and living systems. Not only do they have a direct effect on the health of communities and ecosystems, but they shape the dynamics and content of entire cultures, including the ability of every society to exercise its collective intelligence and evolve into collective wisdom.

So it is not academic curiosity that leads me to explore the impact on societal intelligence of increasingly effective marketing, political campaign contributions, concentrations of wealth and power, and what Dee Hock, the innovator of VISA, calls “the capitalization of gain and the socialization of loss” – which others have called “take the money and run.”

Does advertising help a culture think clearly, assign correct importances to things, and behave in a collectively intelligent manner? Does special interest control of political campaigns help the “body-mind politic” come up with the best solutions possible for collective problems? Does the concentration of wealth create an environment that supports creative dissent, social entrepreneurship and the ability of all relevant viewpoints and options to be heard and digested by the social mind?

If not, then these conditions sustain the ability of corporations and other organized special interests to become parasites or cancers in the body-mind of society. They can cripple our potential societal intelligence and wisdom, with predictably disastrous, terminal results.

We need to be mindful that our efforts to enhance the operation of corporations can easily enhance their ability to undermine human communities, local economies, national politics and natural ecosystems.

In light of this, what should we do?

One approach is to only enhance the collective intelligence of corporations whose social and environmental practices are at least benign or at best regenerative – or who are seriously trying to make them so.

Another approach is to use the fruits of our corporate work to support work that increases the collective intelligence and wisdom of the whole society.

Another approach is to put as much attention on enhancing the collaborative intelligence and wisdom of organizations as we put on enhancing their collective intelligence and self-organizing power.

Many of us dream of creating a more humane, sustainable society through our work in organizations. We support spirit and community in the workplace and the decentralization and self-organization of corporate leadership. A few of us try to build corporate social and environmental responsibility and long-term thinking, but are hampered by the pace and intensity of global competition.

It is Time to Ask Some Hard Questions

How can the limited liability corporate form be used to enhance, instead of undermining, co-intelligent society? If it cannot be, what shall we do about that?

How can the success and innovative power of organizations be linked to the well-being of the human and natural communities we all depend on?

How can our economic lives be reorganized for wisdom – for long-term perspective, for ecological sensibility, for a pace that supports collective well-being, healing and reflection?

How can competition be harnessed into the service of collaborative intelligence, rather than undermining it?

How can co-creative participation become a reality not just in the workplace but as the guiding light of every institution, community and society?

Co-intelligence provides a frame of reference within which answers to these questions can be explored. Let us apply it to those questions as a priority.

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

Evoking and engaging the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole

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