Why do we value wise democracy’s “prime directive”?

The Wise Democracy Project has a guiding principle – its prime directive to evoke and engage the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole. I explore below why I and the Co-Intelligence Institute consider it so important, even invaluable. I share how it helps identify which initiatives or processes help support wise democracy – and why. I also share a bit about how the prime directive shapes how I and others view three major issues of our time – climate, pandemics, and emerging authoritarianism. Finally, I share my new realization of how the prime directive is essential to prevent wise democracy principles from being misapplied for destructive ends.

Why is wise democracy’s most fundamental principle – its prime directive – to “evoke and engage the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole”?  In these disruptive times, we value this guidance as our North Star in how we think about and engage in our work. Below are some of the ways we find this prime directive helps us.  (If you want to know more about the directive, itself, this essay explains the principle further.) 

We invite you to consider:  In what ways might this principle help orient your own efforts? 


We can use this prime directive to help us evaluate and connect with groups, initiatives, theories and methods.  We ask: To what extent does this approach help evoke and engage the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole?  So we tend to gravitate to approaches like these:

principles and practices that welcome and creatively engage diversity, disturbance, complexity, interconnectivity, uncertainty, and inquiry.

approaches that understand and tap the special “freebies” of wholeness, such as synergy, emergence, integrity, spirit, presence, evolutionary insights, and networks.

inclusive, generative conversations among different people, perspectives, worldviews, interests, and needs – especially those calling forth the hidden gifts of interaction among diverse citizens, stakeholders, and even organisms and ecosystems.

alternative economic approaches that support sharing, reciprocity, mutual aid, cooperation, ecological and generational responsibility, circular life dynamics, enoughness, commons, and energy and resource efficiency.

All of these help us evoke and engage the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole.


To learn more about what doesn’t evoke and engage the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole, we study binary partisanship, narrow framings of identity, and win-lose competitive dynamics, among other such phenomena.  We see these as reducing the fullness of who we are and what life is, oversimplifying the actual complexity we face, and neglecting the potential wisdom and resourcefulness available from the larger wholes that include and transcend these narrow framings.  “The whole” is key, so we tend to ask: Who else should be included?  What else should we be considering?  What more is involved here? These are questions that we find apply always to any social enterprise and any effort to address any issue.


We also use the prime directive as a lens through which to view the issues of the day.  Here are three brief current examples of the kind of new perspectives we get from the wise democracy prime directive. There’s much more to each of these, but these highlights will give you an idea of what’s involved.

*  ClimateWe see climate disruption as a symptom of economic, political and cultural systems that assume separateness, competition, and immediacy over long-term interconnectedness, interdependence, interbeing, and reciprocity. We doubt that linear technical problem solving about reducing emissions will adequately address the complex dynamics of climate degradation, nor that people’s hunger for visible progress will serve to provide the collective patience and insight needed to live through climate consequences to a more wholesome relationship between society and the natural world, of which climate is one element. That patience and cultural transformation (e.g., Just Transition) can be greatly served by ongoing, iterative initiatives seeking to evoke and engage the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole – all the relevant people and perspectives, including nonhuman lives and future generations – for the long term wellbeing of the whole.

*  PandemicWe see a battle going on, framed as between “two sides” – (1) the mainstream epidemiological approach to prevent the spread of the virus and (2) protesting the psychospiritual, material-economic, and free society costs of the isolation and social control assumed to be needed to serve that prevention. But in this battle we see a poignant failure to embrace the actual greater complexity that not only includes both narratives but transcends them to include much more, as well. This actual complexity is hidden by taboo dynamics and fears in all corners, exacerbated by information and media distortions and cognitive distortions like confirmation bias and the overconfidence effect, on all sides.  We believe the existential war between these narratives impedes our realizing that their dynamic tension could be used to highlight the trade-offs intrinsic to our actual, complex pandemic predicament. We see greater, more holistic insights potentially available through generative engagements among the whole “ecosystem” of pandemic perspectives.  We advocate efforts to evoke and engage the wisdom and resourcefulness of that whole ecosystem, regarding how to address the complexity of the pandemic.

*  Emerging AuthoritarianismWe see authoritarian approaches spreading more readily as trust – and thus “legitimacy” – break down between citizens and their allegedly democratic governments.  People do not feel heard. They do not feel their needs are being met.  Real and proclaimed abuses of power and privilege generate resentment and demands. Majoritarian partisanship generates polarization – highly charged oversimplifications of issues and of each other, which are intensified by those seeking personal fame and fortune and/or control over the levers of centralized power (a dynamic exacerbated by fragmenting media dynamics).  Practices that visibly and authentically evoke and engage the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole (such as minipublics) – along with greater use of random selection (which helps tap “the whole” while impeding manipulation) and even nonviolent direct action – can help empower, heal and enlighten the public as we build wisely participatory and empowered cultures and institutions that use such practices routinely.


I recently noticed that in some countries the challenges of the pandemic are creating opportunities for power-seekers to kickstart greater social control – often using new technologies – to make populations more comfortable with these practices and to marginalize those who protest as undesirables or even ban protest.

I found this particularly interesting because it means those power-seekers are “using diversity and disturbance creatively” – a wise democracy pattern that happens to be one of my favorites.  Upon reflection, I realized that some of the wise democracy patterns can be used in ways that degrade life and life-enhancing possibilities.  I wondered what could salvage the pattern language from that troubling dynamic.

The wise democracy prime directive arose out of my attempt to articulate the pure core of the wise democracy pattern language – the dynamic each and every pattern was intended to serve.  I now realize that it is also the saving grace of the whole pattern language.  While a given pattern may possibly be applied in a way that undermines the wellbeing of the whole, it would be hard to apply the prime directive that way, since it calls on us to evoke and engage the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole.  So I now think it is imperative that we keep the prime directive in mind and heart as we seek to apply the potent tools of the wise democracy pattern language.

These are all aspects of learning our way into this deeply decent worldview that has been gestating and practiced to a greater or lesser degree in many forms by millions of caring, visionary people around the world for millennia.



*  From Lexico.com and Wordnik.com, we get the mainstream definitions of “prime directive”:

1.  A chief objective, goal, or requirement.

2.  A guiding principle (in later use popularized especially by the U.S. science fiction television series Star Trek as a law prohibiting interference with less developed planets and cultures).

3.  An order or mission which presents the overriding control over a course of action.Origin:  1940s; earliest use found in The Washington Post.

PS: Don’t forget to SAVE THE DATES – January 24/26/28 (9am-2pm PT each day) – for the 3-day co-intelligence/wise democracy Open Space “unconference” – Cospiring Co-Intelligencia – open to everyone inspired by Tom Atlee’s and CII’s work. It will be a great time to think together and network about all this. Registration and more info will be forthcoming January 1st.

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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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