Collective Wisdom

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Tom Atlee:

'I am coming to suspect that it is the fringes that make the difference between collective intelligence and collective wisdom.

Collective intelligence solves problems or resolves conflicts of, by and for a group, an organization, a community or a whole society. It solve those problems and conflicts for the here and now, for people who are interested, aware, and involved.

Collective wisdom, on the other hand, has a bigger challenge. It needs to expand out from the particular problem or conflict, from the here and now, from those interested, aware and involved. It needs to embrace larger contexts, interests, drivers and possibilities. It has to consider the deep needs of people long gone and yet unborn, and to delve into deeper levels of understanding and caring. It ventures into unseen dimensions of life - into background trends, hidden corruptions and connections, psychospiritual influences, scientific microcosms and macrocosms - to realize unexpected consequences, novel resources, and extraordinarily potent answers. Being the Big Picture form of intelligence, wisdom is born out of our capacity to stretch creatively into the unknown and the unacknowledged, into the new angle, the deeper parts of ourselves, the fringe insights and possibilities.

In the borderland where collective intelligence begins to expand into collective wisdom we see radical inclusion of erstwhile opponents in conversations enriched with broad-spectrum perspectives and information. We find Citizen Juries of randomly selected citizens studying briefing materials which summarize the main conflicting approaches to the issue they're considering and then spending a week interviewing diverse partisans and experts and pulling together conclusions and recommendations to share with the public and its representatives.

Such approaches are so much more collectively intelligent than the polarized battles, bought-off politicians, and back room deals that shape so much of public policy today. They are also wiser, although usually hovering on the edge of real wisdom. They don't journey too far in the direction of greater wisdom. That would take more thought, time, and resources. And it can seem just a bit too theoretical and risky for those involved in making things better now, with what we have.

But we need that bigger, longer-term wisdom. Given our circumstances, we can't be satisfied merely with intelligence - even when it is collective. We need to invite and push ourselves and each other beyond smart into big-picture ways of being wiser together. Why? Because that's where our greatest challenges and dangers will transmute into our greatest creative breakthroughs and positive possibilities. And because we are talking the edge of extinction here, for ourselves and so much of the rest of life - an edge that luckily also contains all our prospects for a far, far better world.

Open-ended emergent processes like those mentioned earlier are one approach to calling forth this wisdom, an approach especially suited to facilitating self-organization and transformation in organization and communities. Initiatives to generate transformational public policy, however, could benefit from a different approach - specifically, expanding the techniques of deliberative democracy into the fringes.

For example, the practice of "framing an issue for deliberation" involves breaking the mainstream arguments about an issue into 3-5 diverse approaches, summarizing them, and presenting them as educational stimulants to citizen deliberators. Occasionally, the deliberators are charged with choosing one approach over the others. More often, they are invited to pull together an approach that seeks to resolve some of the difficult trade-offs that these competing approaches demand, often by mixing and matching aspects of them all. Sometimes deliberators are even challenged and empowered (perhaps with Dynamic Facilitation's "choice-creating" process) to come up with something quite different from all the mainstream approaches, something that addresses the issue at a deeper, broader, or more imaginative level.

Alternatively (or additionally) citizen deliberators could be explicitly invited into the fringes. The Web is filled with non-mainstream information and solutions for virtually every issue we face. What if the 24 citizen deliberators in a Citizens Jury (for example) were broken up into 6 teams of 4 deliberators and given an afternoon to search the Web for the most useful existing information and/or possibilities they can find, relevant to the issue they're working on. Each team would work independently from the others, in parallel, with any Web-searching assistance they needed. They would be challenged to find information and options that are even better than what the other teams find. At the end all the teams would come together to share and discuss what they found. It would be an immersion in the messy world of the Web's juicy fringes, with no pre-ordained instructions or conclusions. Informed by their earlier studies and interviews, the 24 deliberators could tap that rich brew for new ways of thinking about and solving - or even transcending - the issue before them. It would be interesting to then bring in new experts who know about the new options the deliberators are considering, and to engage those new experts with the previous, more mainstream experts, to delve deeper into understanding what's going on and what's possible.*

Public wisdom involves the public and decision-makers (whomever they may be) taking into account what needs to be taken into account for broad, long-term benefit. We need an active inquiry to formulate, test, use and institutionalize many diverse approaches to generating such wisdom. The very diversity of approaches would be a resource for wisdom. As a reader of this essay, you may have your own ideas. That's great! Post them as comments on this blog. This essay is intended merely as an initial stimulant to raise interest and energy for the vital inquiry about how we can co-create our participatory wisdom."

Key Book To Read

* Book: Collective Wisdom. Principles and Mechanisms. Edited by: Hélène Landemore and Jon Elster. Cambridge University Press, 2012


"James Madison wrote, 'Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob'. The contributors to this volume discuss and for the most part challenge this claim by considering conditions under which many minds can be wiser than one. With backgrounds in economics, cognitive science, political science, law and history, the authors consider information markets, the internet, jury debates, democratic deliberation and the use of diversity as mechanisms for improving collective decisions. At the same time, they consider voter irrationality and paradoxes of aggregation as possibly undermining the wisdom of groups. Implicitly or explicitly, the volume also offers guidance and warnings to institutional designers."