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Co-Intelligence and Social Change


The concept of co-intelligence creates a new realm within which to explore social change and visions of a good society. It doesn't replace other social change paradigms, but rather overlaps and embraces them. I believe the co-intelligence paradigm provides, as well, insights not evoked by other paradigms.

Consider, for example, the following questions, which express certain bottom-line assumptions characteristic of certain social movements:

Socialists ask of a society: "Does everyone have enough? Who owns the means of production?"

Democrats may ask: "Are things fair and free? Is power responsible to the people?"

Ecologists ask: "Is the environment respected? Is nature's wisdom followed?"

Peace activists want to know: "How much do they resort to violence? How do they handle conflict?"

Human potential advocates wonder: "Are people creative and enlightened? Does this society support individual self-realization?"

Religious people consider: "Is this society compassionate? Does it honor Spirit?"

Grounded in co-intelligence -- which, in turn, is grounded in the holistic assumption of the interconnectedness of all of us and everything in the world -- I ask a different set of questions:

Does this society respond creatively to changing conditions inside it and around it?

Are synergy and partnership primary cultural modes?

Does it use both its diversity and its unity to enhance its collective ability to learn?

I see co-intelligence as a meta-issue that embraces most social concerns. Yet it also reaches beyond issue-oriented activism into the realm of conscious social evolution. When I pursue co-intelligence inquiries like those in italics above, I start to see traditional social issues from a significantly different angle.

I find myself asking, "When do traditional issue-oriented actions serve co-intelligence - and when do they hinder it?" Movements for minority rights, for example, seem to support co-intelligence when they nurture coherent subcultures and respect for cultural uniqueness, but they hinder co-intelligence when they suppress internal diversity and deny their common ground with others. Environmental activities that stress partnerships between people and nature seem more co-intelligent than those that set them at odds with each other.

Similarly, we could say that militaries can be co-intelligent to the extent they enforce peer relationships (rather than oppressive relationships) among nations and peoples. But enforced peerness only serves co-intelligence when respect and cooperation are rapidly built upon it, replacing the need for force with voluntary mutuality.

From the other side of the coin, I feel that co-intelligence-building activism naturally impacts virtually every issue since, by definition, society's intelligence is what deals with social issues. However, co-intelligence-building activism doesn't pre-determine issue outcomes: a co-intelligent public may or may not arrive at the conclusions favored by progressive activists.

Among the many social change efforts which I think significantly intersect with co-intelligence are:

justice · individual & group rights · peace · education · environmental health · economic health · health care · democracy · functional media · sustainability · cultural assumptions · community · crime.


Square One

I think of co-intelligence as an entirely new place to stand vis a vis social change and our role in it. To proclaim co-intelligence as a social goal is to stand on Square One of a Wisdom Culture. Square One is the first square on a game board. Those of us who are trying to consciously build a co-intelligent culture are stepping into a different game which is, in a sense, just beginning. Everything in the old world, the old structures, all the experiments and methodologies, even the problems and catastrophes - everything - is a resource for what we're about to do. And what we're about to do is different in kind from what we've done before or thought we were doing before.

We're shifting from thinking of social change as an effort to achieve an ideal society or ameliorate social ills and beginning to realize that it's part of a continual process of social transformation. Our goal is no longer specific desirable states for society but rather a desirable unfolding of society. In other words, we're not trying to engineer a new society to our specifications so much as trying to jump-start certain innovations which will (we hope) elicit society's conscious and continuous re-creation of itself to its own changing specifications, as needed, to meet the challenges, changes and opportunities it faces. That's what co-intelligence is all about.

At a societal level we can call it societal intelligence. To promote it and model it is to play a different sort of game than we're used to playing.


Societal intelligence

I define societal intelligence as the capacity of a whole society to engage well with its circumstances - especially to creatively deal with challenges and changes within it and around it. Since many societies have survived so far, some degree of societal intelligence must exist already. What can we learn from existing societies that we should preserve and enhance as we build more intelligent societies?

Clearly modern societies are dangerously deficient in some aspects of their intelligence - because, as Einstein said, we're drifting towards unparalleled catastrophe. So what are we missing? What kind of society wouldn't drift towards catastrophe? What would have to be true of it? What would we see if we lived there? If a reporter from our culture visited a truly intelligent society what would she report back?

I have been working on a number of answers to these questions, but they reach far beyond this introduction. In any case, the most important point is not my answers to these questions, but the questions themselves and what we all choose to do with them. Co-intelligence implies our sustaining such inquiries together.

[Some visions of a co-intelligent society include: Imagining Collectively Intelligent Communities, Pat & Pat, a view from 2019 and Some possible characteristics of a co-intelligent society (to guide our social change efforts)]


A wisdom culture?

Another way I've framed my vision of a co-intelligent future is in terms of a "wisdom culture." I adopted this phrase from studies of Native American and other primary cultures. Wisdom cultures were cultures where wisdom was highly honored, cultivated and articulated. Members of the tribe saw life as a great learning and growing experience, not just a matter of pleasure, pain, power and fun, survival and death.

However, these cultures were mono-cultures, with internally dominant world-views, lifestyles and socio-spiritual practices. There wasn't a lot of dissent on the basic assumptions underlying them. Although many of them had real respect for diversity among individuals, many could be as ingrown and suspicious of other ways as modern people.

Today's global culture and many national cultures have become pluralistic. There's increasing interaction among cultures. Individuals, groups and sub-cultures demand recognition and assert their pride, even as they live together - or kill each other. Mediating and eroding all these cultures is the dominant post-modern market-oriented monoculture that commodifies and exploits diversity but does not honor deep traditions, real uniqueness, or wisdom.

So what kind of wisdom culture might be possible for us? What does it mean to speak of a global culture that is not reductionist and homogenized? This leads directly into the next issue:


Dealing with diversity and extremism

If we achieve a wisdom culture, it will probably treasure deep cultural diversity, while providing common ground for interactions among those cultures. What would a multi-cultural wisdom culture look like?

Perhaps the most tricky question is how to handle extreme differences in which the values or practices of one culture seem repugnant to another culture. How would (and should) we handle Naziism? Is there a way to deal with the abortion conflict co-intelligently? How should a co-intelligent culture handle Fundamentalism (or Fundamentalism's efforts to counter the "corrupting" power of free thought)? Indigenous cultures are horrified at industrial cultures owning and mining the land, while those of us in the increasingly feminist West are horrified at the female circumcision practiced by some African tribes. What does it mean for us to treat each other co-intelligently? What exactly do we envision doing with all this?

For me the answer lies hidden somewhere in the double-edged character of judgment. We need judgment to guide our actions, and yet when we label things as Good or Bad we usually short-circuit our ability to observe and understand them, thereby crippling our ability to respond creatively. Is there some way around this?

Again, I don't have simple answers for this, but facing the question is a vital first step. I suspect that we need to move in the direction of increasingly sophisticated and persistent forms of dialogue that are designed to address the polarization among us.


The co-intelligence approach may handle problems some people have with activism

My dictionary defines activism as "militant action" which is implicitly adversarial - and I think that connotation is widely shared in our society. I'd like to have a term like "conscious participation" hold the place in co-intelligent social change agentry that the word "activism" holds in traditional social change agentry.

I also want to include, within the idea of co-intelligent social change, forms of social change agentry not usually included in the term "activism" - things like raising children, transforming workplaces, designing habitats that support a sense of community, inventing sustainable technologies, healing, etc.

A lot of former activists have become disillusioned with the spirit, dynamics and seeming futility of activism. So they've withdrawn into personal pursuits, professions and family lives. Yet many still harbor deep concerns about the world, concerns which grow as social and environmental conditions worsen. Similarly, a new generation of young people concerned about the world are disgusted with the methods and perspectives they associate with activism, leaving them cynical, despairing and absorbed in themselves and trivial pursuits.

As I said earlier, I feel co-intelligence provides people with an entirely new place to stand vis a vis social change and their role in it, which I call the Square One of a Wisdom Culture. Can we build a Square One that will allow people to step out of their roles in the decaying structures and into a new game where they can co-create new roles and structures for themselves and everyone else?



What is the role of leadership in co-intelligent social change?

In co-intelligence theory the goal of leadership is the SELF-ORGANIZATION of the led system.

Ideally, leadership is shared among participants (simultaneously or in turns or as appropriate, etc.). In this way, the group or society organizes itself. When that isn't possible, whoever assumes co-intelligent leadership tries to evoke self-organizing energy among the other participants. When that doesn't work, then the leaders become directive; however, the primary aim of any guidance or mandate is to empower the participants to collectively self-organize themselves. In co-intelligent social change we would find:

When should we use each of these? How should we use them? What are examples? What likely effects do we need to watch out for, resulting from each of these?


Taoistic social change

The philosophy of Taoism proposes that we move with (rather than fight or neglect) the natural inclinations of whatever's going on and whomever's involved.

In the nonviolent martial art of aikido, which is based on Taoism, the defender does everything she can to avoid or de-escalate a fight. But if she is attacked, she joins the attackers and contributes to their motion, often sending them flying off in the direction of their attack. I see a similarity in how Gandhi and King used the abusiveness of their oppressors to defeat those oppressors. But I sense there are further creative ways we could use this principle which we have barely tapped.

I sense there are ways to work with oppressive power dynamics, entrenched powerholders, and dysfunctional cultural patterns to produce more co-intelligent, functional systems. Militant activism has traditionally been adversarial because entrenched power by definition resists transformation toward greater justice and co-intelligence.

But opposition requires continual input of energy and attention and evokes counter-opposition and is therefore unsustainable. On the other hand, using the force of your opponent to defeat him or using the compulsions of an oppressor or addict to transform the oppressive or addictive system creates a self-organized (and therefore sustainable) change. Martin Luther King, Jr., used the brutality of racism to transform racism. Can we develop strategies that generate even deeper, more lasting change?

To what degree can we transform domination and dysfunction from below - and to what degree do we need top-down, coercive control of these destructive factors in order to make progress?

Gandhi provided a bridge from violence to nonviolence. I think we face the challenge of building another bridge that reaches from non-violence to creative with-ness. I don't know exactly what this means, but I have compelling intuitions about it which I am currently exploring.


Levels of transformation

Co-intelligent social change acknowledges the interdependence of several levels of transformation which must be undertaken simultaneously. Any level which is neglected will become an impediment to transformation at other levels. Among these levels are:

We need to explore, at each level, what simple changes might have a disproportionately large effect. What are the points of leverage? How does our work at one level affect the others? Perhaps most important, where does our caring lead us?

Tom Atlee - from Thinkpeace, August 1994