Co-intelligence, Collective Intelligence, and Conscious Evolution

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Article: Tom Atlee. Co-intelligence, Collective Intelligence, and Conscious Evolution

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Tom Atlee:

"My work on collective intelligence evolved out of my progressive social change activism. On the 1986 cross-country Great Peace March, I had a number of profound experiences of leaderful self-organization and group mind solving collective problems, e.g., I wanted to bring that capacity to progressive groups. My research led me to work with corporate consultants—with whom I would not have otherwise had any contact as an activist!—doing leading-edge work on group intelligence and organizational learning. When I realized that this approach could be used to convene diverse perspectives into collectively wise democratic guidance systems for communities and nations, my activism shifted from a partisan to a holistic worldview, and I coined the term “co-intelligence” to cover all ways to evoke the wisdom of the whole on behalf of the whole.

Conceptually, co-intelligence embraces more than collective intelligence (CI), the intelligence of groups. It includes at least multi-modal intelligence, collaborative intelligence, resonant intelligence, universal intelligence, and wisdom. (see By itself—and especially without wisdom (embracing the big picture)—collective intelligence, like individual intelligence, can be used in harmful ways, such as building gas chambers and new technologies with disastrous “side effects”. I coined the term cointelligence to provide a conceptual space for all holistic dimensions and forms of intelligence, as collectively they have more intrinsically benign social implications. I like to keep this useful distinction clear, and not use the term “co-intelligence” interchangeably with “collective intelligence”.

My book and website explore in more detail all six manifestations of cointelligence mentioned above. Here I will focus on just collective intelligence, after setting a few more pieces of narrative context.

My work on societal/systemic co-intelligence led me to develop a new theory of holistic or wise democracy, in which leading-edge forms of dialogue, deliberation, information systems, etc., would be practiced and institutionalized to access the latent wisdom of We the People on an ongoing basis—a theoretical possibility recognized by U.S. founders, but seldom realized in practice.

My research on deliberative forms led me to recognize a number of them— e.g., American and British citizens juries, Canadian citizen assemblies, Danish consensus conferences, and German planning cells—as constituting a category I named “citizen deliberative councils” (CDCs). CDCs are made up of randomly selected ordinary citizens (a microcosm of the community, state, or country) convened for a limited time to study and reflect on a particular topic or issue—including interviewing experts from across the spectrum of opinion— and, after facilitated deliberation, sharing their collective insights and conclusions with the public, press, and relevant public officials. A number of academics and politicians have envisioned a wide variety of powerful institutionalized roles for CDCs, notably to review ballot initiatives and candidates on behalf of the broader public (“citizen initiative review”). Much of my book The Tao of Democracy describes CDCs and their role in a larger “culture of dialogue.”

After years of promoting CDCs and wise democracy, I was exposed to the idea that we are a newly conscious manifestation of the 13.7 billion year evolutionary process. In a profound moment of realization, I saw that all the cointelligent processes and factors I had been talking about for 15 years were tools for bringing increased consciousness—intelligence, wisdom, intentionality, choice, awareness, etc.—to our collective efforts to improve our shared circumstances. They were, in fact, manifestations of the increasing consciousness evident in the evolutionary process. The fact that these cointelligent processes could help us consciously deal with the 21st century’s extinction-level issues (nuclear war, extreme climate change, rampantly destructive technologies, emerging diseases, etc.) made it even clearer that we were dealing with conscious evolution. If we survive this century with flying colors, we will be a very different civilization than we are now—that is, we will have evolved, as a family of cultures, into more co-intelligent forms.

The realization that our efforts to enhance our co-intelligence were basically us being conscious evolution, led me to shift my inquiry into “What evolutionary dynamics can inform our efforts to consciously evolve our culture and social systems?” This research is underway at the time of this writing, and this conscious evolutionary perspective now informs everything I do. That is the outline of the history of my life’s work. Along the way, my natural impulse as a philosopher has been to gather together all the ideas, dynamics, and tools I can find within this realm, to categorize them, and to create overarching theory and vision that show how they can relate and be applied together to address social and environmental challenges. As part of that, I did a variety of analytic breakdowns of collective intelligence, a few of which I offer below. Others can be explored through

Scales of Collective Intelligence

Human systems in which we can observe and nurture collective intelligence:

• INDIVIDUAL collective intelligence (collective intelligence among our own internal subjective parts and voices) • INTERPERSONAL or RELATIONAL collective intelligence • GROUP collective intelligence • ACTIVITY collective intelligence • ORGANIZATIONAL collective intelligence • NETWORK collective intelligence • NEIGHBORHOOD collective intelligence • COMMUNITY collective intelligence • CITY collective intelligence • COUNTY/SHIRE collective intelligence • STATE/PROVINCE collective intelligence • REGIONAL collective intelligence • NATIONAL / WHOLE SOCIETY collective intelligence • INTERNATIONAL GROUP/NETWORK/ORGANIZATION collective intelligence • GLOBAL HUMANITY collective intelligence

Reflections on Forms of Collective Intelligence (CI)

Although my specialty has been in the realm of democratic and deliberative forms and approaches to collective intelligence, I have run across many others. So several years ago I decided to brainstorm a possible taxonomy for them. This proposed taxonomy is, of course, only one way to cut the pie. However, it is the first such attempt I know of to embrace the full spectrum of ideas and practices which the practitioners describe with comparable terms like “collective intelligence”, “community wisdom”, “organizational learning”, etc. Perhaps most importantly, this taxonomy outlines what might be considered a new field of study and practice. Given the potentially key role such practices could have in the future of our planet and civilization, I hope this initial listing will help call forth an evolving general theory of collective intelligence—and an inclusive discipline and network of theoreticians, practitioners and advocates—that embrace all existing and future variations of collective intelligence.

Note that not all collective capacities are “intelligence.” Occasionally collective intelligence (CI) overlaps with other capacities like collective consciousness or “power-with”— capacities that can be characterized by collective stupidity OR collective intelligence. Furthermore, some dimensions of collective intelligence, like “flow,” have collectively stupid manifestations (mobs) as well as collectively intelligent ones (high-functioning teams). I will try to navigate these distinctions creatively here, but the reader should keep them in mind.

Note also that some phenomena that I have not included here could conceivably be included in this list. For example, are “networks” an intrinsic form of CI, or are they a pattern useful in developing CI? I have chosen the latter categorization, but people more familiar with networks may be able to make a case for them as a distinct form of CI.

Some Forms of Collective Intelligence

REFLECTIVE (dialogic) CI — People think together, using dialogue and deliberation. They find and share information, critique logic and assumptions, explore implications, create solutions and mental models together. Their diversity, used well, helps them overcome blind spots, ignorance, and stuckness. They see a bigger, more complete picture with more complexity and nuance, and develop better outcomes than they could alone. Most of this can be readily explained in terms of cognitive synergies among the participants.

STRUCTURAL (systemic) CI — Social systems are built that support intelligent behaviors on the part of the system as a whole and/or all its members. For example, the Bill of Rights supports creativity, free flow of information, and maintenance of diversity—all of which support collective intelligence. Quality of Life indicators guide national economic activity more intelligently than the wholly monetized Gross Domestic Product statistic. Chairs placed in circles support equity and sharing in ways impeded by chairs placed in rows.

EVOLUTIONARY (learning-based) CI — Organisms, species, ecosystems, and cultures are made of patterns of relationship that have “worked” over long periods. These co-evolved, built-in success-patterns contain embedded wisdom often used automatically, but which are also available for analysis and deeper learning (e.g., biomimicry). We can look at them as manifestations of learning—or perhaps of “evolving coherence.” Evolving coherence is perhaps most consciously pursued in the careful, grounded, ongoing collective inquiries of science, but we can also find it in any shared learning effort, an endeavor institutionalized in academia. Evolving coherence is also characteristic of morphogenic fields—the living habit-fields of life that arise from our collective experience and shape our consciousness and behaviors. Any patterns evolved (or understandings learned) become part of informational CI, below.

INFORMATIONAL (communication-based) CI — The flow of information through communication channels and the widespread gathering and persistent availability of information in databases (including libraries, newspapers, etc., as well as the Web and morphogenic fields) means that knowledge that is created or recorded in one place and time is available to others in other places and times. Universal access to information informs the activities of diverse, dispersed people beyond their individual data-gathering capacities. In society, this form of collective intelligence has been aided in the last century by telecommunications and computer technologies, as it was centuries ago by the invention of printing. To a large degree, the informational sea we live in empowers the routine collective intelligence of our society or subculture. In fact, the complexity of modern society makes most information-gathering intrinsically collective (through scientists, statistical enterprises, journalism, etc.); any given individual simply cannot find it all out. Furthermore, our culture’s informational, narrative and morphogenic fields shape our awareness and behavior without our even knowing it. The dark side of the informational mode is the sea of unproven assertions and unexamined assumptions we experience as fact that, being unexamined, may be false or go out of date and— resisting change (evolutionary CI)—become the source of collective stupidity.

NOETIC (spiritual or consciousness-based) CI — Certain realms of human experience are accessible primarily through altered/higher states of consciousness or esoteric practices. All these phenomena are grounded in “consciousness,” so we need to remember that “intelligence” is the capacity to learn new things and solve challenging problems. The term “collective intelligence” may be most appropriately applied to the noetic mode assuming these higher/deeper realms are accessed by a group together such that the group’s subsequent understanding and activity are demonstrably intelligent.

The noetic realm tends to be anchored in subjective experience, although there is growing objective evidence for various noetic phenomena. The noetic experience of CI would be one of “accessing” or “attuning to” a pre-existing higher intelligence or awareness, rather than of co-creating a new capacity through group synergy (as in reflective mode).

FLOW (mutual attunement-based) CI — When the boundaries between individuals vanish, become permeable, or fade into relationship or shared enterprise, a collective can think, feel, respond and act as one entity. This “group magic” is exemplified by—and experienced in—intense dialogue groups, high-functioning human teams and non-human collectives like flocks of birds. Basic forms of flow or flocking behavior are achieved by individuals following simple rules about their relationship to those around them, setting aside independence in the realms covered by the rules. This (flow, flocking behavior) happens even when the individuals are computer-generated agents like “boids” or “cellular automata.” More complex, creative forms of flow occur when conscious, distinct individuals are so attuned to each other that they can innovate and express their uniqueness in thoroughly appropriate/embedded ways, as with jazz improvisation. Flow may also be associated with mobs, groupthink and other dysfunctional collectives in which individuality itself is stifled or dissolved. But for our purposes here the term collective intelligence is reserved for collective cognitive capacity and behavior that is highly functional.

Flow is often a dimension of that. Some think that extreme forms of flow manifest as mind-meld and collective consciousness (the global version of which de Chardin called The Omega Point) that may or may not be collectively intelligent. But core individuality is a resource for collective intelligence, providing diversity and creative energy. So flow can be understood as dissolving the boundaries, barriers and battles of individualism (ego) in order to better tap the powerful essence of individuality (true uniqueness and individual capacity) in the context of collective activity.

STATISTICAL (crowd-oriented) CI — In the presence of a goal, intention, inquiry or direction—and no skewing factors (e.g., deceit)—a high enough number of individuals will generate a remarkable level of collective problemsolving or predictive power, even in the absence of communication among them. This has been demonstrated in many cases of mass guessing, where the average guessed solution has proven superior to over 90% of the individual guesses. This can also be seen in ants whose almost random foraging is capable of rapidly finding food that can then be collectively accessed in very focused ways. Computer-generated entities also demonstrate this statistical intelligence: When the first-run-through maze-paths of about two dozen intelligent agents are superimposed over each other, the plot of the majority decision at each turn of the maze will often be a direct path through the maze—one that was not followed by any single agent. This form of collective intelligence—combined (often implicitly) with structural and other forms—is what some term “market intelligence,” Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”.

RELEVATIONAL (emergence-based) CI – “Relevation” is a term coined by quantum physicist and dialogue innovator David Bohm. It names the dynamic through which phenomena emerge (elevate) from potentiality (Bohm’s “implicate order”) into actuality (Bohm’s “explicate order”) by reason of their relevance to existing reality. Our inquiries and intentions can attract insights and solutions, often seemingly “out of nowhere.” As a form of collective intelligence, this may be most vividly displayed by one person saying something and another person mis-hearing it in a way that provides them with some answer or insight. The answer, which was never spoken or intended, relevated out of the space between them, drawn into existence by the second person’s desire to know that answer.

These eight forms of collective intelligence (and probably other forms as well) can manifest fairly independently, but in most cases several overlap and combine in a variety of ways. For example, high quality democratic deliberations (reflective CI) can be designed into a political and governmental systems (structural CI)—and those institutionalized deliberations can then do the subsequent social and policy design work (full merger of reflective and structural CI). Insight in deliberative groups (reflective CI) can come from higher sources of wisdom (noetic CI) or from communication or the Internet (informational CI)—and often through relevational CI, in either case. And, as mentioned, flow and statistical CI are governed by intentions and rules that can be shaped by the design elements of structural CI (such as Gross Domestic Product). The phenomenon called “hive mind” is mostly a combination of flow and statistical CI. Dialogue (reflective CI) is a great way to create new knowledge or examine assumptions (informational and evolutionary CI).

Organizational vision efforts use informational and structural CI (the vision or mission of the organization) and often dialogue about the vision (reflective CI) to help the organization’s subsequent reflective, statistical, and flow forms of CI manifest more naturally and coherently. And so on.

Different CI innovations will tend to focus on one or a few of these forms of CI—and there is need to continually explore how they all fit together. Those interested in social change and organization will tend to focus on the first four which are most amenable to conscious shaping, while those interested in beingness will tend to focus on the last four as they are heavily experiential and nonlinear. Again, part of our challenge is to bring all these together in more productive ways.

Emerging and converging fields involving collective intelligence The following fields of study and practice have an emergent, leading edge quality to them and, at the same time, seem to be overlapping more and more, and even converging into an increasingly coherent understanding of the intelligence of whole systems, and of life as a whole. Increasingly, these fields are using methodologies, language, metaphors, and narratives from each other to support and describe what seem to be manifestations of the same patterns in different realms and at different levels.

We can further the evolution of our culture(s) towards becoming a global wisdom society by supporting these diverse fields to discover each other, talk together and collaborate. I suspect this list is not complete. I hope others will add new fields or emergent factors that they see as part of this convergence toward greater collective intelligence.

But these are the ones that come to my mind at this point:

• “group magic,” especially through dialogue or attunement (e.g., collective meditation), including all the methodologies of healthy group co-creativity • self-organization theory and methods—including chaos and complexity theories, living systems theory (including cybernetics, ecology, permaculture and evolutionary biology), network theory, the “invisible hand” of the market, “swarm intelligence,” and flocking behavior, etc. • the dynamics of collective behavior studied by social psychology • transpersonal and Jungian psychology, non-dualistic spirituality, and other studies of psycho-spiritual phenomena beyond the individual ego • “revitalization” of community and democracy, including public participation, deliberative democracy and creative forms of spiritual politics, community organizing and nonviolent activism • “open source” challenges to the proprietary confinement of knowledge, innovation and co-creativity • “open source intelligence” challenges to the over-dependence on spying and secrecy that neglects public sources of information and inhibits cross-fertilization of intelligence not only in government but in society at large • information, communication and knowledge systems (usually computer-based or -enhanced) (most of the “global brain” theories are grounded here) • theories that expand our understanding of intelligence and cognition—both individual and collective—including some leading-edge educational theories • the 21st century imperative for transformation, evolution and wisdom (driven by global crises and often based in spirituality)— and our growing understanding of the dynamics of transformation and evolution. This relates to the human potential movement, especially as it expands into social and collective human potential. It is also central to the conscious evolution and “Great Story” (seeing evolution as a sacred and meaningful) movements. • participatory and collaborative practices in all sectors and for all reasons • the study and use of “decision markets” (systems for aggregating the independent actions, bets or estimates of hundreds of people)—for prediction, fact-guessing and pattern-clarification (e.g.,’s “people who bought this also bought that” function, a manifestation of “stigmergy”, which we see especially in ant colonies, where the collective organization is achieved not through interpersonal communication so much as through individual communications with the shared environment) • holistic studies of all types, including general exploration of the nature of wholeness and the relationship between parts and wholes • group and organizational dynamics, particularly studies of dysfunctional “groupthink” as well as the theory and practice of learning organizations, teams, communities of practice and similar approaches to organizational development • work on the many manifestations of human difference—including conflict, polarization, stakeholders, personality types, cognitive styles, socially charged “diversity” (race, gender, class, etc.), and so on—and the role of diversity, in general, in living systems.

May we discover ways to bring all these together in the service of humankind."


"Tom Atlee is a social change pioneer and visionary, author of The Tao of Democracy: Using Co-Intelligence to Create a World that Works for All and founder of the nonprofit Co-Intelligence Institute This book would not have been possible without his identification and encouragement of many of the pioneers who helped create the book, which then allowed the editor to attract additional leaders in the field to contribute to this collective endeavor."