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Co-Intelligence as an approach to Transformational Social Change

A challenge to activists, politicians, and organizational development professionals


by Tom Atlee

Fall 1993, Revised April 1999


We are in a time of rapid change, and the pace of change is speeding up. To the extent we engage creatively and appropriately with each new set of circumstances, we'll survive, evolve and flourish. To the extent we don't, we'll be (and are) in trouble.

I frame this in terms of intelligence. I look at intelligence as creative, appropriate engagement with circumstances. This requires rational thought, intuition, memory, presence, and any number of other capabilities. I view IQ as a reductionist measure of intelligence. We'll need more than high IQs to navigate what Robert Theobald has aptly called "the rapids of change." We'll need a deep, full, holistic sort of intelligence, what Jean Houston calls multi-modal knowing.

We need such intelligence not only individually but collectively - in our relationships, groups, organizations, communities and societies. This means we'll also need collaborative intelligence, the ability to be intelligent with each other and with the world around us.

Our ability to be co-intelligent (which includes capacities like listening well, feeling deeply into our collective situations and understandings, bridging and using our differences well, integrating multiple viewpoints, etc. -- as well as using certain structures, processes and cultural factors) generates the systemic intelligence of our groups, organizations and societies.

Peter Senge, in The Fifth Discipline, describes a learning organization. By this he doesn't mean a school, but an organization which, like an intelligent organism, can learn. In 1993 I facilitated "the societal intelligence dialogue project" - thirty people exploring what makes learning societies, societies capable of engaging collectively, creatively, and appropriately with their changing circumstances. I have continued this investigation ever since, and have uncovered quite a lot of useful insights and methodologies that could help us.

At every level we need intelligence. Therefore, among the parts of every system (individual, group, organization, community, society) we need co-intelligence, so that each system as a whole can be intelligent.


Collaborative Intelligence

"Synergy" includes everything that makes a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Much of collective intelligence comes from certain kinds of synergy that can make a whole be more intelligent than the combined intelligence of its individual parts. One aspect of that synergy might be called collaborative intelligence, the ability to use one's intelligence in harmony with (rather than against) the intelligence of other participants.

In a group or society, the collaborative intelligence of the participants is more important than their individual intelligence. As an official of Mensa, the high IQ club, has said: "Smart people can be devious in a more creative way." If they're into fighting, ego tripping, asserting their rightness or subversion, smart people can undermine the collective intelligence of a group more effectively than people of common intelligence. We've all seen this.

We see it in the behaviors of the entire society, as well. Brilliant interest groups and corporations invest all their intelligence in undermining each other, resulting in a sort of negative synergy that makes it difficult for our society to respond to the crises of our time. Among the diverse groups of our society, there isn't a lot of collaborative intelligence at work, so naturally our society as a whole doesn't manifest much collective intelligence.

For me, the mission of transformative social change is to change that, to increase our society's ability to reflect on and respond well to changing circumstances. If we accept that mission, then we can't afford to simply increase the intelligence of individuals and organizations without addressing their collective intelligence, their ability to think, feel and respond together so that the whole society can think, feel and respond as a conscious, living entity. If we ignore this, then we're just enabling people and organizations to better pursue their own goals at the expense of the whole, and thus undermining our collective survival and impeding our collective evolution.

This leads me to believe that people committed to transformative social change should be asking themselves: How can I help this individual or organization in ways that enhance the intelligence of the society? If the individual or organization doesn't want to develop its collaborative intelligence but only its selfish intelligence, I think we should withdraw our help.

We don't need to help multinational corporations who tear apart communities and environments to do that job more brilliantly. We don't need to help non-profits whose idea of social service is to attack their enemies. Such organizations get enough help from those who have no vision of transformation, but only of winning.

We can choose to help, instead, the community-oriented business, the company that adheres to codes of social ethics and answerability, the organization that brings people together to solve their problems collectively. We can choose, especially, to help those whose work directly enhances the collective intelligence of our society, who work for such things as:

Closer to home, we can engage more with each other, applying the principles of co-intelligence to our own efforts to promote it. We are our own laboratories for learning, individually and collectively. How well do we use our own diversity? How much do we work isolated from each other, and how much do we come together to engage with and improve our collective circumstances?



In closing, I'd like to share a new idea which can help us in this enterprise, an idea I call "holergy." It is synergy's sister

Synergy is the dynamism of a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Holergy is the dynamism of a part that is greater than any particular role it plays in any particular whole. This dynamism derives from three facts:

Whenever the wholeness, integrity, connectivity or full potential of something is beefed up, it's holergy is beefed up

Synergy is intimately connected to holergy. If you increase the synergy within a person's life and personality, there's more of that person - more connections, more wholeness - more holergy - there to tap as a resource. A mother in a parent owned-and-operated co-op nursery school who is working well with the other parents (lots of synergy) most likely has more to offer her community because of that (more holergy) than the single mom struggling to deal with her parenting alone. The opposite is not necessarily true: Increased holergy can increase or decrease the synergy factor. For example, networking increases someone's holergy (s/he become part of more relationships, which then become resources for each other). But within that person's life, these connections may be well coordinated (synergized) or they may just generate confusion (dysergy). Furthermore, whether this person's networking creates synergy or dysergy in their community may depend on things like whether they are a criminal or a mediator.

When you combine holergy and synergy at all levels, you get what I call deep synergy. All the synergies are enhanced in such a way that the holergies are enhanced, and all the holergies are enhanced in such a way that the synergies are enhanced. Deep synergy is infinitely expandable. I think of it as a journey to more - not just in the sense that an inventory is more, but in the deep, richly alive and fruitful sense that a rainforest is more or that a loving relationship is more. Things fit, are fully themselves, are mutually generative - all at the same time.

Co-intelligence is that form of deep synergy that weaves people, groups, and societies together in their environments so that, at all levels and from all angles, there is creative, appropriate engagement and, therefore, continuous positive evolution.

Can you imagine a better goal for transformative social change?