The Co-Intelligence Institute CII home // CIPolitics home

Co-Intelligence and the Holistic Politics
of Community Self-Organization



Written for the Permaculture Activist Oct 1999


by Tom Atlee



To our normal awareness a uranium rock is just a rock. But arrange its parts in a particular way, with the right processes, and it can blow up a city.

To our normal awareness a room filled with people is just a crowd. But arrange those people in the right way, with the right processes, and they can generate wisdom.

The experiment with human consciousness has reached a crisis: Will we design cultures that generate wisdom before our awesome physical powers destroy the laboratory, our world?

I invite you to consider "co-intelligence" as an antidote to blind human power, and a vital next step in our evolution.


I'd been researching participatory forms of human community for years when I stumbled into permaculture in 1991. I was in Belize advising a nascent intentional community. Their organic farm nestled up against a rainforest. It turned out they weren't really interested in the sort of conscious, co-creative community I advocated. So I spent the remaining days before my flight home holed up with a few books from their library -- among them, Bill Mollison's Permaculture: A Practical Guide for a Sustainable Future. I realized that what I'd been trying to do with this little group of pioneers, they were already doing with their farm. I wondered if permaculture principles were perhaps easier to apply to gardens than to communities.

Permaculture soon became one of the guiding metaphors for my work -- what I came to call "co-intelligence." Its spirit is captured in Mollison's evocative phrase, "Everything gardens" -- by which he meant everything has an impact on its environment. Animals, plants, sun, land, people, water, etc. -- each of them influence whatever and whoever is around them and is, in turn, influenced and shaped. It is this dance of mutual gardening, of co-influence, of co-creativity that I chose to call co-intelligence. But I've been an activist all my life, and my primary interest was how people garden people -- how they influence each other individually and collectively -- especially through social systems.

When people garden groups, organization, communities and societes, we call them "leaders." When citizens garden themselves collectively, we call that "democratic politics and governance." Occasionally such collective self-gardening dissolves into true self-organization, much like the ideal of permaculture, with ongoing design explorations in search of ever more elegant synergies. In this article I'll share some principles and tools for doing more of that.

Co-intelligence work involves forms of leadership much in the spirit of permaculture. In participatory leadership we, as leaders, are peers with the many other co-creative gardening organisms in the Garden/Community, as responsive as we are causative. In facilitative leadership we arrange the designs, processes and resource links needed for self-organization to emerge from within the Garden/Community. In evocative leadership we see the possibilities of the whole system and the gifts that each living being has to offer to that whole (as well as the gifts that the whole has to offer each being) and we motivate those beings to join together into a living community where they can bring forth their fruit.

"The role of beneficial authority is to return the function and responsibility to life and people," writes Mollison. "If successful, no further authority is needed. The role of successful design is to create a self-managed system."



Intelligence, I propose, is the capacity of life to create and modify patterns in its search for what works and what satisfies it. We can observe intelligence as much in the highly-evolved patterns of forest eco-communities as in the worksheets of a college math student. CO-intelligence adds the idea that such patterning is mutual, multi-dimensional, holistic, and evolving. The usual idea of intelligence -- individual rational intelligence -- is part of the linear, fragmented, causational worldview. Co-intelligence is part of a fuller holistic, systemic, relational view of the world.

The political vision of co-intelligence was foreshadowed by John Dewey in a 1937 speech entitled "Democracy as a Way of Life":

"The foundation of democracy is faith in... human intelligence and in the power of pooled and cooperative experience... to generate progressively the knowledge and wisdom needed to guide collective action.... [E]ach individual has something to contribute, whose value can be assessed only as [it] enters into the final pooled intelligence constituted by the contributions of all."

In 1982 Paul Hawken, James Ogilvy, and Peter Schwartz gave that pooled intelligence a name in their book Seven Tomorrows, "We need a collective intelligence of a kind that may not have characterized the human species in the past."

Such collective intelligence is, sadly, a rare phenomenon. Too often, even brilliant people like ourselves behave in ways that add up to collective stupidity in the form of arguments, alienation, global warming, Y2K.... Usually we are herded into dysfunctional behaviors by dysfunctional structures, processes, and cultural agreements we don't even recognize as the source of our problems. If those patterns (structures, processes, cultures) were made conscious, then collective intelligence could become a project of permaculture: we could consciously design our society's systems for synergistic yield rather than drifting into dysergistic messes.

Although collective intelligence is the original core of co-intelligence, it is not the whole picture. Co-intelligence also includes collaborative intelligence, the heart of permaculture, the kind of intelligence that works with whatever life has to offer. As Mollison says, "Rather than asking 'What can I get from this land, or person?' we can ask 'What does this person, or land, have to give if I cooperate with them?'"

Another dimension of co-intelligence I call multi-modal intelligence -- intelligence that includes all of who we are, all of our cognitive and engagement capacities -- head and heart, reason and intuition, mind and body, facts and principles and narratives and ethics.

The final two components of co-intelligence I call wisdom and universal intelligence. Wisdom involves everything that gives us perspective -- the big picture, the long term, the nuances, the gestalt, the depths, the ambiguities, the Other, the unknowns, the awe, and even humility and humor. And universal intelligence includes any phenomena that suggest that something vastly larger than us has a mind of its own -- God's Will, the Tao, the self-organizing capacity of nature, call it what you will -- that contains us, moves us, and often seems to want to work through us, individually and collectively. Integrating such "higher intelligence" consciously into our lives can have a profound effect on how meaningfully and successfully we engage with the world.

But in this article, I'll stay grounded in how to enhance the collective intelligence of communities.



What basic understandings can guide us in designing human communities for self-organization? Here are some initial thoughts....

1) Intrinsic life energy is a powerful motivating force in humans, individually and collectively. Intrinsic life energy shows up whenever people are moved by their

· needs
· values
· natural inclinations
· passions
· possibilities

and so on. To the extent such intrinsic forms of life energy/motivation are tapped, extrinsic sources of energy are not needed to generate fruitful human activity.

2) Life structures shape the FLOW of life energy. Human life structures manifest in a number of forms, including

· beliefs -- about what is real, possible, true, right, expected, natural, etc. (both individual and cultural);
· architecture and other spatial patterns and physical constraints and channels;
· schedules, time demands and other temporal patterns;
· collective processes (group protocols, market interactions, political institutions, etc.);
· habit patterns, both individual and collective -- physical, psychological and social;
· affinity patterns -- aesthetics, attraction, reward ... and their opposites;
· stories, myths and other narrative structures (note: The word "narrative" describes more than just a story told. It actually describes a structure of reality -- as in Muriel Rukeyser's phrase, "The universe is made of stories, not atoms" -- which resonates strongly with intrinsic patterns of human perception, thought, and meaning. Narrative patterns silently underlie most of our psychological and intellectual lives. Narrative patterns are very powerful in human affairs. We shouldn't overlook them or underestimate them when we're seeking human resources or exploring human problems and possibilities.)

3) A healthy culture is an evolving, co-created human pattern of LIFE STRUCTURES that help individual and collective LIFE ENERGIES move through their natural cycles in ways that feed each other and sustain the whole system.

4) Diversity is a resource to the extent it is used creatively. "Every resource," says Mollison, "is either an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on the use made of it." Co-intelligence involves bringing a diversity of perspectives into synergistic interaction -- as in true dialogue -- to increase the validity, comprehensiveness and fruitfulness of the collective insights that emerge.

The story of the blind men and the elephant speaks to this issue. The blind men, feeling different parts of the elephant, argued over whether it was like a tree, a snake, a giant leaf, etc. If they'd started from the assumption that each of them had a piece of the truth, they would have gotten much further. As Mollison says, "Stupidity is an attempt to iron out all differences, and not to use or value them creatively." Using our differences creatively is a hallmark of co-intelligence. And it points us towards a design principle with which to create powerful wisdom-generating approaches to politics.



One weekend in June, 1991, a dozen Canadians met at a resort north of Toronto, under the auspices of Maclean's, Canada's leading newsweekly. They'd been scientifically selected so that, together, they represented all the major sectors of public opinion in their deeply divided country. They were facilitated by Harvard professor Roger Fisher -- co-author of the classic Getting to Yes -- and two colleagues.

Despite being political and personal strangers and despite being continuously watched by a camera crew from CTV television, these diverse ordinary citizens managed to craft a consensus vision for their country in less than three days. It was published in four pages of fine print -- part of the 39 pages Maclean's devoted to describing their efforts in the July 1st issue.

Maclean's editors pointed out that this process had proven more effective than numerous other forums run by the government for years, involving hundreds of thousands of Canadians at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. What made Maclean's process more successful was that its participants were

a) selected for their significant differences and
b) professionally facilitated to a consensus. Of course, this consensus was not a "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" compromise. It was an agreement that came from really understanding and connecting with each other and becoming partners in meeting their real needs.

This is important: We aren't talking about political representatives who are answerable to conflicted constituencies, debating and voting on proposals to come up with a majority decision. We are talking about people who are demographically representative of a population, exploring their way to a deep, shared understanding. The first approach is based on power-over -- the ability of one part of the whole to influence and dominate other parts. The second is based on power-with -- the ability of synergies within and around a system to generate desirable results. In this case the synergy was dialogue -- the ability of parts of the whole to discover deeper truths through understanding each other so well that a richer picture emerged that included them all.

Canada isn't the only country that has used this approach. Several times a year the Danish government convenes about fifteen citizens selected to represent the diversity of the Danish population. They are instructed to study and make recommendations about a specified technological issue (such as the genetic engineering of food). They're given a summary of who believes what about the issue and why. They're helped to come up with a list of questions they want answered and a list of experts to answer them. Those experts -- often representing opposing views -- are called to testify to that citizens' council. As Frances Moore Lappé says, "the experts are on tap, not on top." When these diverse citizens have learned what they want to know, they are facilitated to a consensus about policy recommendations which they then deliver to the press and the government. The resulting wisdom embraces the facts and possibilities presented by the experts, as seen through the common sense, daily lives and public values of the citizens. This allows each group (experts and citizens) to exercise their best roles in a harmonious way. They provide their culture with "protracted and thoughtful observation" (Mollison, again) about new technologies.

What would happen if this sort of process -- this "diversity+consensus=wisdom" approach -- became the foundation of our political system? Two initiatives are already moving in this direction:

· Consultant Jim Rough (email: envisions an annual national "Wisdom Council" established by Constitutional amendment and made up of two dozen citizens selected at random. This diverse group would be facilitated to a consensus about what The People are concerned about and what they want.
· A group called The National Commons (email: plans to convene major players involved with specific issues, from across the political spectrum, and facilitate them to a consensus about how their issue would best be addressed. Since these folks are already active on their issue, their consensus wouldn't just constitute a recommendation: they would act on it.

Any community could convene regular citizens consensus councils of this sort, on specific issues or to articulate the "will of the people" to guide political dialogue and action. The more official, regular, and broadly publicized such councils are, the better.

This isn't "participatory process" in the "direct democracy" sense. Only a tiny fraction of the population speak in these councils, and those speakers are no way answerable to that population. However, the perspectives of each member of the vast majority of the population -- the voice of their type of person -- is not only heard, but actively integrated into a greater wisdom. So we're talking neither representation nor participation, but something else. We're focusing on and engaging the aliveness and intelligence of the whole system rather than on the opinions of the myriad individual parts (as voting and polling do).

For best results, however, there should be a subsequent participatory dimension to this process. Before it can become truly "the wisdom of the whole," the findings of a consensus council need to be worked over by the whole population. There should be widespread dialogue on the council's findings -- discussions on talk shows and in bars, essays in schools, editorials in papers, theater performances and poems, the works. The collective mind of the community needs to reflect on what was said by these "wisdom representatives" -- to digest it, adapt it, see where it fits. Then, if the councils are regular, the next council would be made up largely of people who had dialogued about the results of the last council, thus providing continuity in the unfolding evolution of the community's wisdom.

I believe this model is the most powerful form currently available to us to generate genuine community wisdom and coherence. For more information, see "Building a Culture of Dialogue (among other things)" at

However, citizen consensus councils are not the only powerful process design in our co-intelligence repertoire.



Here are three of my favorite large group processes which can be used by any community to reflect on what it thinks, feels and wants.

· Open Space conferencing, developed by Harrison Owen, provides a simple way for people to self-organize around issues of passionate concern to them. Owen discovered that people attending conferences often liked the coffee breaks best. So his Open Space conferences have no keynote speakers, no pre-announced schedules of workshops, no panel discussions, no organizational booths. Instead, sitting in a large circle, participants (who must be passionate about the conference theme) quickly learn how they are going to create their own conference. Anyone who wants to initiate a discussion or activity writes it in big letters on a large sheet of paper and announces it to the group. They choose a meeting time-and-place from a grid of post-it notes provided by organizers, and then tape their session announcement up on a scheduling wall. When everyone has announced and posted their initial offerings, the conference begins. No one is in control. The whirlwind of activity is guided from within by the participants' passions and a few simple principles like:

1) Whoever comes are the right people.
2) Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.
3) Whenever it starts is the right time.
4) When it's over it's over.

My favorite is The Law of Two Feet: "If you find yourself somewhere where you aren't learning or contributing, go somewhere else." For more information see or Open Space Technology: A User's Guide by Harrison Owen (Berrett-Koehler 1997).

· Stakeholder gatherings like Future Search Conferences can engage selected stakeholders representing specific constituencies in reflecting on their shared past and the forces shaping their shared world. These gatherings differ from the consensus conferences in that they focus on stakeholders (who are often opinion leaders as well), and they usually set aside their differences in an effort to focus on their common ground and to co-create action plans and work teams together. See or Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff, Future Search: An Action Guide to Finding Common Ground in Organizations and Communities (Berrett-Koehler, 1995)

· Using The World Cafe process, a large group can have the intimacy and engagement of small group dialogue without losing the broader understandings and group-feeling of plenary (whole-group) sessions. Stumbled upon by consultants Juanita Brown, David Isaacs and Nancy Margulies, the World Cafe method requires space for groups of 4-8 people to sit in circles. It's nice to have circular tables, flowers, candles, quiet music, paper tablecloths and marking pens (for writing notes on the tablecloth) -- but none of these are necessary. After 30-45 minutes of conversation a bell tells tablemates to choose one of their number to stay behind while the others move to new tables to share what emerged from their earlier discussions. The bell continues to move participants to new tables at regular intervals, but ultimately (or regularly, depending on how long the World Cafe is) they return to their original tables to share what they learned "out in the big wide world." For additional details and variations, see



These large processes have power in and of themselves. However, their power is enhanced by the quality of communication that takes place within them. To me, the term "dialogue" embraces all that is most meaningful and fruitful in conversation.

Dialogue, as the term is used here, means shared exploration towards greater understanding, connection, or possibility. Many forms of communication fit this definition. And many forms don't, including arguments, posturing, holding forth, defensiveness, bantering discussions and other forms of communication where we don't discover anything new or connect with each other.

Here are some basic guidelines for dialogue which can be discussed and agreed to by a group and posted around a room to remind participants:

We talk about what's really important to us - but we also like to have fun together.
We avoid monopolizing the conversation. We don't talk overly long and we make sure everyone has a chance to speak.
We really listen to each other. We see how thoroughly we can understand each other's views and experience.
We respect ourselves and each other, making space for our differences. We say what's true for us without making each other wrong.
We try not to get stuck in old thoughts and feelings. We see what we can learn by being curious and exploring things together.

For more information, see Dialogue: Rediscovering the Transforming Power of Conversation by Linda Ellinor and Glenna Gerard (J. Wiley and Sons, 1998);, or
For guidance on facilitating dialogue, see or Facilitators Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner, et al. (New Society, 1996).


Listening circles (a.k.a., talking circles, council, wisdom circles, etc.) were originally borrowed from tribal council circles. Participants' communication is mediated by a held object, often (but not necessarily) one with some special significance to the participants. An aesthetic hand-sized stick or stone works well. In the simplest versions, the circle's convenor holds the object, welcomes people, makes some brief remarks about the process and spirit of the circle, and then makes his or her personal statement. She then passes the object to the person on her left who speaks (or can remain silent for a few moments), and then passes the object left, and so on, with each person speaking while the others listen. The object can travel around the circle many times with great benefit. There is no cross-talk or discussion, per se. In the most fruitful circles, people "speak the truth from their hearts," briefly and deeply sharing what they think and feel.

There are many circle variations, including:

· The circle can have a theme, or not.
· Turns can be timed, or not. The convenor can keep time, or pass a watch or clock right behind the object, so that each person times the person who speaks after them.
· Popcorn - Anyone can speak, but no one can speak twice until everyone has spoken once. Between turns the object is placed into the middle or is handed to whomever wants to speak next.
· Scrip circles - Each person gets several special slips of paper (or pebbles or poker chips), each representing an amount of time (usually 30 or 60 seconds). When they wish to speak, they "buy time" for their turn (putting some of their "scrip" in a hat that is passed to them) -- or they can give some or all of their scrip to someone else to use, at any time. This process generates lively group dynamics and contains the total speaking time.
· Some groups enjoy opening rituals, such as placing something (a candle, personally meaningful objects, etc.) in the middle of their circle to symbolize a shared center. In these groups, closing rituals usually involve putting the candle out, removing the center-objects, and/or holding hands in the circle.
· Impromptu circles can be done by two or more people whenever they need or want, using whatever's handy (such as a stapler or salt shaker) as an object to pass around.

For more information, see:, Christina Baldwin's Calling the Circle: The First and Future Culture (Swan, Raven & Co., 1994), or The Joy of Conversation by Jaida N'ha Sandra (Utne, 1997).

Placing a chime and stone in the center can provide some benefits of dialogue without the constraints of a formal circle. If someone feels the group needs to center itself or move to a "heart space," they reach into the middle and strike the chime. All talking stops immediately until the sound fades, and then begins again. If someone picks up the stone from the center, they get the next turn after whoever is currently talking, and then return the stone. This enables quieter people to participate.

Fishbowl process allows different sides in a disagreement to air their issues without the battle dynamics intrinsic in debates and arguments. Several people representing Side A talk together in a central circle while those from Side B (and others) sit in the surrounding audience without commenting. After a set period, Side A moves into the audience and Side B moves "into the fishbowl." You may need to give turns to other sides or those who have no side. It is usually necessary to repeat the full cycle with all sides several times. A moderator is occasionally needed to keep the conversation civil and productive.



What would politics look like if we took wholeness, interconnectedness, synergy and co-creativity seriously?

For our purposes, let us say that politics is how a community or society reflects on its circumstances, solves its problems, makes decisions and takes action on its own behalf. As this plays out in our culture, it takes many forms, which I've arranged here in a "spectrum of politics." Most of the effective action currently goes on in the power politics mode, against a background of apolitics, anti-politics and routine politics. Meanwhile, cooperative and holistic politics are growing as alternatives to the other, more fragmented modes.

Apolitics (issues: personal issues, freedom, stability) --
"Living one's life as if politics has nothing to do with oneself."

Consumerist absorption in personal affairs
Denial about collective threats
Politics as a spectator sport
Obliviousness to underlying political dynamics
Personal solutions to collective problems (e.g., water filters)

Anti-politics (issues: alienation, corruption, hopelessness, utopian visions)
"Sick of the life-degrading dynamics of politics"

Cynical pessimism - or passive confidence "things will work out"
Dismissal of politics
Opinionated political spectatorism (often very sophisticated)
Rechanneling of political impulses into other efforts
   (spirituality, relationships, psychology, groups)
Ideological glorification of personal/small group approaches

Routine politics (issues: information, fair procedure, majority rule) --
"Playing one's prescribed participatory role as a citizen."

Following the issues of the day
Writing political letters
Contributing to causes or candidates
Tolerance of other's views

Power politics (issues: leverage, answerability, imagery, winning) --
"Getting what one needs and wants in a competitive environment."

Political debates
Political campaigns for issues and candidates
Use of media, money, organizations, etc., for political ends
Strategic gamesmanship
Undermining opponents

Cooperative politics (issues: vision, common ground, participation) --
"Working together to pursue shared visions and satisfy shared needs."

Dialogue among diverse stakeholders or opinion leaders
Asset-based community development [1]
Consensus community organizing [2]
Participatory community planning efforts [3]
Listening projects [4]
Study circles [5]

Holistic politics (issues: synergy, insight, big picture, system dynamics) --
"Generating the wisdom of the whole for the benefit of the whole."

Citizen consensus panels and wisdom councils
Redefining success [6]
Open space conferences of elders on public issues [7]
Publicized scenario work by all stakeholders [8]
Multiple-viewpoint drama [9]
Satyagraha (Gandhian "truth force") [10]

Here is further information on these co-operative and holistic approaches:

1) Asset-based community development (ABCD) - Citizens discover, map and mobilize assets hidden away in all the folks who live in their community, as well as in associations and formal institutions, and bring those resources out of the closet and into creative synergy with each other. See John P. Kretzmann and John L. McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community's Assets (Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research, 1993; $15 from ACTA Publications [800] 397-2282) and the Asset Based Community Development Institute at

2) Consensus community organizing identifies projects on which community organizations and "downtown interests" can collaborate, thus building relationships for future projects. See

3) Participatory community planning efforts - Open municipal planning/visioning processes which attract hundreds of citizens to brainstorm, discuss and select improvements for their city/community. For an example, see

4) Listening projects - Canvassing door to door with questions that invite citizens to explore issues in ways that transform their awareness and engage their interest and participation. Contact Rural Southern Voice for Peace (RSVP), 1898 Hannah Branch Road, Burnsville, NC 28714, (828) 675-5933, email:

5) Study circles - Voluntary, self-organizing adult education groups of 5-20 people who meet three to six times to explore a subject, often a critical social issue. See or The Study Circle Resource Center, PO Box 203, Pomfret, CT 06258. Phone (860) 928-2616, email

6) Redefining success - A system's assumptions around, measurement of and rewards for success are among the most powerful shapers of thought, feeling and behavior, both individual and collective. Collective inquiries around the issue of "quality of life for all of us, including future generations" can evoke real wisdom. See and Robert Theobald's book Reworking Success online at

7) Open space conferences of elders on public issues - To generate significant collective wisdom, participants would ideally themselves be relatively wise and be able to carry on respectful, powerful dialogue -- thus the reference to "elders" (which here refers to such people of any age).

8) Publicized scenario work by all stakeholders - Scenario work explores an unknown future -- not to predict or control what happens, but to prepare ourselves to recognize and better work with it, whatever it may be. For more information, contact Douglass Carmichael at

9) Multiple-viewpoint drama - Fiction or documentary, video or performance, the idea is to present compelling vignettes of the many perspectives in any situation so that all viewpoints can be heard by a wide audience. See

10) Satyagraha (Gandhian "truth force") - While many believe Gandhian nonviolence is basically about resistance, Gandhi stressed that it involved adherence to truth and the effort to draw everyone involved into truth-seeking dialogue in which all participants become more grounded in their own humanity and the welfare of the larger community.


The effectiveness of all these approaches can be enhanced by (a) combining them into synergistic programs, (b) doing them regularly (not just as one-time events), and/or (c) by having them sponsored by servant leaders at all levels of a community's formal power structure.

For a vision of how one might integrate some of these approaches, see "Raising the Quality of Dialogue About Y2K" or "The Story of Pat and Pat - a view from the Year 2019"

Remember: All the approaches in this article are pieces of an emerging puzzle-pattern for an entirely new way of being human -- powerfully self-organizing, collectively intelligent, wisely evolving societies grounded in the dynamic application of holistic, organic understandings. Permaculture activists could help weave all this into coherent living cultures, so we can someday look back with amused relief at the politics that shackles us today.

For more information about co-intelligence in general, see For more on co-intelligent politics, see You can contact the Co-Intelligence Institute at or P.O. Box 493, Eugene, OR 97440.


See also Citizen Deliberative Councils