People Power, Collective Intelligence

Connecting Our Conversations | Becoming Wiser Together

Wisdom Society or Extinct Society

Connecting our conversations is the best way to discover that the
future is already here, but that the awareness of it is not evenly
distributed. Why is this important? Because, the choice is between
joining together to create a wisdom society or regressing into an
extinct society. The complex, intertwining local and global crises will
outpace our ‘response-ability’ if we don’t wise up individually and
collectively.

A human group or social system is wiser if it can think and act from a
broader perspective and care for a larger whole with all of its parts.
Without this expanded perspective and care our minds are caught in a
maze of linear causalities, and thus we are incapable of making sense of
the intricate patterns of the looming, extinction-level dangers and the
corresponding evolutionary opportunities for transformation.

How can we sense the essence of an historical possibility while still
waiting for our wise actions to be realized? Try this: imagine our
grandchildren could live in a world where the full blossoming of their
individual and collective talents and creativity is at the center of
society’s attention.
 
How would that be different from today’s world? It would probably have
wiser ways to organize work and commerce, governance, education, all
social institutions, and their relationship with the built and natural
environment.

If that is a future we feel attracted to, where do we start the
presencing of it? The answer is in our own actions and commitments; to
learn from our experience both as individuals and as organizations, as
well as from ‘the future in need of us’ (Otto Scharmer).

We can start by opening all our senses in order to observe how the
future is already here. We can identify the signs by which it manifests.
The intergenerational movement is a good example of such a sign. The
following story is about my learning as a participant in a bigger story
told on pp. 26 – 27 of Kosmos.

Intergenerational Pioneers Connect Local and Global Conversations

At a recent party in my home office we listened to snippets of a
recorded chat on Skype, a service that provides free text, audio, and
video-conferencing, worldwide via the Web. The chat had taken place a
week before the party in the context of a series of intergenerational
conference calls.

The idea for the series was conceived in an email distribution list
where older and younger generations met and explored thoughts and
personal experiences related to connecting across the generational
divide. There are many such conversations taking place in physical and
virtual spaces. What distinguished this one was that it was triggered by
a group exchange via email about how to celebrate the 10th birthday of
Pioneers of Change (http://pioneersofchange.net). At the heart of the
explorations are questions related to what pioneering means to the
younger ones and to those who have been doing it since the 60s.

In the particular Skype conversation from which we were listening to
recorded excerpts there were only two participants—a young friend in
Boston and me in Brussels. I was struck by the beauty and power of her
longing for a world that wouldn’t respond with undervaluing attitudes
and cynicism to her playfulness, joy and authenticity. With her
permission I included her words in my selection of excerpts that I
introduced at the dinner party.

My colleagues (ranging from their 20s to 50s) marked those snippets
on the playlist that particularly touched them and I fed the highlights
of the conversation in Brussels back to the global conference calls.
That’s how one conversation with a circle of participants can inspire
another. This ecology of conversations keeps growing. It’s happening
spontaneously and with intention and, we I may also add, with velocity
and profound connectivity.

This story is an encouragement also for prototyping the much needed
multi-dimensional connections between local and global conversations and
energies across generations; conversations that strive to not only talk
about but also embody change and transformation. There is more about
the dynamics of the local and global layers of
collective intelligence (CI) in my blog
(http://www.community-intelligence.com/blogs/public/2005/06/a_localtoglobal_definition_of.html).

What Is Collective Intelligence?

As the CI meme is spreading fast online and off-line, so is the range
of significance associated with it. For some, it is the ‘wisdom of
crowds,’ for others it is the inter-subjective field of energy that
comes into being when people interact from a position beyond ego—to name
two of the popular branches of CI. Each of them can be thought of as a
particular lens or context through which different meanings of CI can be
accessed and can enhance each other. In this article, we introduce CI
in the following three contexts: evolutionary, cognitive, and economic.
Change agents can power up their impact by using them together.

CI through the evolutionary lens. My late friend, Finn
Voldtofte, described CI as, “The capability of a collective/social
system to hold questions and language too complex for any individual
intelligence to hold, and to work out strategies, visions, goals, and
images of a desired future.”

My own sense of CI grew from examining its role in the unfolding of
subsequent chapters in human history. Seen through this historical lens,
CI is the capacity of human groups and systems to evolve towards higher
order complexity and harmony.

Voldtofte’s and my definitions of CI are complementary and certainly
not value neutral; they imply directionality and historical
concreteness. The level of CI reached by a collective entity is defined
by the ensemble of knowledge and tools available to it in any stage of
its evolution.
 
Seen through the evolutionary lens, CI is always associated with a
specific human group or social system and can be enhanced and taken to a
new level through collective practices.

In the jump time of history, when the old systems are in crisis and
the new ones have not yet developed on a large scale, CI can do its job
only if it is guided by collective wisdom. In such times discovering and
engaging the path forward calls for the broader perspective of caring
for evolution itself. Practices for the evolution of consciousness and
social systems urgently need to be co-created and co-invented. Only then
shall we be able to reduce the fear, resistance and suffering that are
currently accompanying the transition to the new civilization.

CI through the cognitive lens. Pierre Lévy, Canada Research
Chair on CI at the University of Ottawa, wrote, “Intelligence refers to
the main cognitive powers: perception, action planning and coordination,
memory, imagination and hypothesis generation, inquisitiveness and
learning abilities. The expression ‘collective intelligence’ designates
the cognitive powers of a group.”

The emphasis on CI’s cognitive dimension is strong in the work of
Professor Lévy but he also acknowledges, “[E]mphasis on cognition does
not intend to diminish the essential roles of emotions, bodies, medias,
sign systems, social relations, technologies, biological environment or
physical support in collective intelligence processes. The study of
collective intelligence constitutes an inter-discipline aspiring as much
to a dialogue between human and social sciences as with the technical,
artistic and spiritual traditions.”

Clearly, the potential of such a dialogue cannot be overestimated.
All the wisdom traditions value community and communal intelligence.
Their confluence with the modern arts and sciences of CI will guide our
learning journey to the next level of human possibility, the next stage
of our societal evolution.

CI through the ‘political economy’ lens. What was
‘collective intelligence’ in the evolutionary and cognitive contexts
becomes ‘general intellect’ in the language of political economy. This
term refers to the productive force of the social mind that has been
evolving throughout the millennia. All of humankind’s technical and
scientific knowledge is part of it.

According to Adam Arvidsson, Michel Bauwens, Antonio Negri and other
contemporary philosophers, the general intellect as a productive force
includes also the affective qualities at play in the social organization
of work and learning. Trust is one of them and more and more
indispensable as the social glue that enables social networks, even
transactions on eBay.

Not only that, but the low level of trust among members of a
collective entity, and with their external stakeholders, can and does
hinder organizational effectiveness in business and government. It also
means that low-trust ways of organizing limit the development of CI and
as a consequence perform relatively poorly when compared with new,
higher-trust ways.

Why We Need CI: The Crisis of Meaning-Making

What good is it to have a solution to a problem if the parts of that
solution are scattered in the knowledge, faculties, and experiences of a
large number of players with no way to integrate them? In that question
lies a shorthand summary of today’s epistemological crisis. It is not
simply one of our numerous global crises, but the horizontal crisis that cuts across many of the others and causes their deepening.

CI is as old as humankind itself. What is new is that CI has now
moved into the center of economic and social value creation. Thus, any
barrier to its evolution becomes a barrier to the development of
humankind’s creative potential.

One of those barriers is the system of our collective meaning-making inherited from the industrial era. It’s not that information and knowledge are growing too fast; the challenge is in an inadequate, outdated ‘mode of the social organization of meaning’ (Adam Arvidsson).

In the past, command-and-control structures were adequate to run
large systems and define their meaning and purpose. Then the pace of
change was much lower. Times of exponential expansion of knowledge and
complexity call for new, more capable modes of coordination.

Wiser Communities of Practice, Wiser Organizations

“Communities of practice are groups of people who share a passion for
something that they know how to do and who interact regularly to learn
how to do it better” (Etienne Wenger).

Communities of practice depend for their survival, primarily, on the
value that the membership’s combined action continually delivers to
members. Thus they are more trust-intensive forms of organizing
collaboration than the ones based on wage slavery or more ancient forms
of coercion.

Researchers at IBM discovered, “As organizations grow in size,
geographical scope, and complexity, it is increasingly apparent that
sponsorship and support of communities of practice—groups whose members
regularly engage in sharing and learning, based on common interests—can
improve organizational performance.”

In one of its studies the American Productivity and Quality Center
predicted, “Communities of practice are the next step in the evolution
of the modern, knowledge-based organization.” That step coincides with
the shift from the mechanical ‘knowledge management’ view of knowledge
to an organic ‘knowledge ecology’ view in which both knowledge and CI
are perceived as properties of human communities.

Successfully cultivating CI and a self-organizing community knowledge
ecosystem that supports it, calls for the broader perspective
associated with wisdom. When organizations and their communities of
practice are imbued with this perspective they can pass the chasm that
separates the formal and informal organization by honoring and
synergizing what each of them does best.

The wisdom of human groups and social systems lies in their ability
to add value to their stakeholders as well as to the continuous
improvement of their members’ quality of life. The broader the access
that members have to the meaning-making activities of the organization,
the better are its chances to increase its systemic wisdom.

Communities of practices are social life forms of increasing
popularity because the best of them skillfully combine individual and
collective capability development with community-enabled organizational
results. As the communities mature they become learning partners of the
formal structure. One can observe that process in the life of economic
actors such as Procter & Gamble and Nokia, or government agencies
such as the European Commission, or certain branches of the U.S. federal
government.

Wiser communities of practice strengthen the nervous system (the
network of connected conversations) of the organizations hosting them.
They can also draw on the intelligence of the wider networks of their
profession outside the organizational boundaries. Locally and globally
connected communities both enhance one another and benefit from the
dynamic interplay between local and global scales of CI. As an
alternative to top-down globalization, these connections can enrich our
lives and support us in the great work of healing dysfunctional local
and global systems.

The wisdom society—with which we started this article—can be reached
only through the ‘wisening’ of all institutions and systems that frame
our lives. Personal, organizational, and global transformation is no
longer separable.

The future is in need of the wise action of ‘protoporos’ communities
today. The Greek word ‘protoporos’ means ‘the ones who take the journey
first’ as I learned from Sarah Whiteley in one of the intergenerational
email groups. In the midst of the bad news of the day it is heartening
to know that there are more and more protoporos on the journey of
unconditional authenticity and commitment to our highest collective
aspirations.

Yet, as Barbara Marx Hubbard put it, “The awakening of our species
and our search for solutions is occurring, but it’s scattered, and it’s
certainly not in dominion anywhere. The larger social structures are
proving to be inadequate to solve the problems they’re creating. New
social innovations are emerging everywhere, but they are not
sufficiently connected or empowered. So right now, any effort that we
can make to connect and create greater synergy and participation in this
awakening process is probably the most important thing we can do.”

Connecting our conversations that matter across generations, social
sectors, cultures, scientific, artistic, and spiritual disciplines is
more urgent than ever. Only that can liberate the collective energy,
intelligence and wisdom needed to pass our evolutionary test. It is an
epochal challenge, and to meet it we need all the help we can get from
the social technologies that facilitate transformation, such as
Presencing, Art of Hosting, World Café, Open Space, Appreciative
Inquiry—just to name a few.

Can you imagine what will happen when our capacity to free the human
mind and heart will co-arise with a passionate search for a better world
by the protoporos, and the power of conscious evolutionary media is
supported by the next generation of web tools for collective
intelligence?

Let’s follow the advice of the Czech poet Rainer Maria Rilke from a century ago. “Live that question now, and we will live our way into the answer.”

This article was originally published in the Spring | Summer 2009 issue of Kosmos Journal, and can be downloaded as a PDF here.

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