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Collective Intelligence




Humanity's stakes rely less in the nature of the issues

than its capacity to invent social structures able to solve them,

which makes Collective Intelligence

a survival stake for humankind.








Are we condemned to individual intelligence and collective incapability?




The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them.

Albert Einstein



Why do so many human organizations? (1) such as companies, governments, administrations, associations, etc…, that are composed of smart and sensible individuals, act in silly and even destructive ways at the collective level, often against the very will of their own participants?



Why don't large organizations have the same flexibility and adaptability as small groups of people? Is the fact they are big the real cause of this dysfunction?



Are operational effectiveness as defined by parameters including objectives reaching, project management, etc… and democracy at odds with each other? If the answer is yes, then we must also admit to the startling conclusion that a democratic country is not manageable. If we reply no, then why are companies and organizations in general not democratic spaces?



Why has the free software community, without any hierarchy and decisional center, begun to make products that have higher performance than those of the private industry?






Whether the problem is global warming, the decline in biodiversity, world peace, education, healthcare, commerce, employment, technology breakthrough or any other, none of these can be described and understood in their wholeness by organizations as we know them today. They cannot be solved because we are not sufficiently intelligent at the collective level. Who, in daily life, doesn't suffer from the lack of collective intelligence? Are we condemned to individual intelligence and collective incapability?






The Original Collective Intelligence

from http://www.thetransitioner.org/wen/tiki-index.php?page=Original+collective+intelligence




The original collective intelligence is merely the intelligence practiced in small groups that evolution has endowed us with. We all have a direct experience of it, whether this is in our work, our community life, in team sports, in reflection groups… each of these contexts involve a small number of people placed in sensorial – i.e. spatial – proximity with one another.



This "optimal" group formation also shows up among some social mammals, like wolves, dolphins, elephants, some big cats, monkeys… all have in common the fact they coordinate around an object: the prey, a threat, a toy (stick, stone, water, baby prey…). Thus, with coordinated encircling techniques and attacks, the pack of wolves can catch a prey that is bigger, faster and stronger than any individual wolf.



Such types of organized communities are numerous in humankind. Apart from sports and games where players are coordinated around material objects, most communities in daily life use objects from the symbolic and cultural space. But the dynamics fundamentally remains the same, our senses and our spatial engagement are solicited in a very similar way. Let's review a few examples that we are all familiar with, they will ultimately serve as references that will facilitate our thinking…



In a sports team, each player is an expert who knows what needs doing in real time in relation with the global situation perceived. The team acts as a homogeneous and coordinated entity without information following a hierarchical way. Objectives are reached (scores) in an extremely complex context. In one same sport, each team is different from one another and has its own personality, a whole that cannot be reduced to the only sum of its parts.



In a jazz band, each player perceives the global melody in real time and adapts his or her musical play upon, sometimes in an improvised way, sometimes in a predetermined manner. The way the piece is played defines what is considered as the style of the group, these traits that make it recognizable among all the others.



As for the meeting room, it is made to place each participants in a spatial and temporal proximity that allows them perceive everything that happens: talk, gesture, mood, mimics, writings… it is the established place where the feeling of belonging to something, even temporary, is generated, it is where the tight, friendly, studious, whatever spirit and mood of the community can exist. The aim of the meeting room is to steward collective intelligence by the mean of its spatial architecture.








Characteristics of the original collective intelligence



What are the observable phenomena in the previous examples? They are too numerous for an exhaustive exploration, but let's list seven of the most significant ones, they give us enough grain to grind in order to understand some of the big theoretical and practical principles of the original collective intelligence. See collective intelligence phenomena for deeper inquiry.




An emerging whole: each jazz band, each sports team, each working team has its own personality, a style, a spirit to which we refer as if they were an individuality…. When we emphasize the success, the quality and the unity of a group, it is another way to express the fact that this Whole appears so obviously.




A "holoptical" space: the spatial proximity gives each participant a complete and ever updated perception of this Whole. Each player, thanks to his experience and expertise, refers to it to anticipate his actions, adjust them and coordinate them with the actions of the others. Therefore there is an unceasing round trip that works like a mirror between the individual level and the collective one. We define holopticism as this set of properties, that is the "horizontal" transparency (perception of the other participants), and the "vertical" communication with the emerging Whole. In the examples above, the conditions of the holopticism are given by the physical 3D space ; it is our natural organic senses that serve as interfaces. The role of a coach, or an external observer, consists in facilitating the condition of the holopticism.



A social contract

whether it is musical harmony, game rules, or work legislation, the group is shaped around a social contract, tacit or explicit, objective or subjective, that is accepted and put on stage by each participant. The social contract is not only about values and rules of the group, but also the means of its self-perpetuation.




A polymorphic architecture: the mapping of relationships is continuously updated depending on circumstances, expertises, perceptions, tasks to accomplish, relational rules based on the social contract. It gets strongly magnetized around expertises, each expert (as recognized by the group) takes the lead one after the other to act according to needs. In a sport team for instance, the right winger becomes the leader when the ball comes into his surface, but it can happen that he becomes the goalkeeper when the situation requires it.




A circulating object-link: as Pierre Lévy explains so well in a paper called Collective Intelligence and its objects (1994), "The players use the ball simultaneously as an index that turns between individual subjects, as a vector that allows everyone to design everyone, and as the main object, the dynamic link of the collective subject. We shall consider the ball as a prototype of the linking-object, the collective intelligence catalyzing object". Melody, ball, objective, "object" of the meeting … no doubt that the original collective intelligence gets built upon the convergence of individualities toward a collectively pursued object, whether or not the object is a physical or symbolic one (a project for instance). When they belong in the symbolic space, it is an absolute necessity that these objects must be clearly identified and united in their number and quality by each participant of the group, otherwise this leads to some of those fuzzy situations that all of us has already painfully experienced.



Learning Org

A learning organization?: no learning means no adaptation, no intelligence. However the learning process isn't exclusively at the individual level, but also the developing of a relational intelligence that allows a dynamic adjustment with the community. This involves the existence of a social process that handles it and transforms it into an object of cognition.



Gift Economy

A gift economy: in the competition-economy (the one that we know today), we pick something for ourselves in exchange of a compensation (money, most of the time). In the gift economy, we give first, then we receive once the community has increased its wealth. Raising our children, taking care of the elderly, giving our sweat in a sports team, being involved in an NGO, helping each other in the neighborhood… all these examples show that the gift economy is the absolute base of the social life, this is so obvious that we are mostly unaware of it. Could any community be sustainable in the long run if it relied on an individual sacrifice dynamics? In the gift economy, each participant finds a strong individual advantage that motivates him to give the best of himself. The gift economy organises the convergence between individual and collective levels.



Emerging whole, holopticism, social contract?, polymorphic social architecture?, circulating objects-link?, learning organization?, gift economy... here are the main qualities that we will find in all communities in which the original collective intelligence is at work. Each characteristic is all at once the cause and the consequence of the other characteristics, none can be taken separately. The more they are developed and coordinated together, the more the community is able to evolve and create the future in complex, unexpected and uncertain contexts.





Natural limits of original collective intelligence


If we stick to the definition? we have adopted, the original collective intelligence meets two natural limits:



  • In number: only a limited number of participants can interact efficiently otherwise a too high level of complexity that generates more "noise" than effective results is quickly reached, and this strongly limits the capacity of the group ;



  • In space: participants need to be physically together in a close range so that their natural interfaces (organic senses) can interconnect together. This way they can apprehend the global picture of what happens (holopticism) and adjust their behavior accordingly.


This is the reason why we never see any sport played with eighty players. This limitation is also true for jazz groups, corporate meetings, etc. When the number (of participants) and the distance become too important, a division generally occurs. Other strategies, other organizations have been developed along the evolution, we are now going to review them.







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