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Political Life: Moving from Collective Stupidity to Collective Intelligence


by Tom Atlee


Political life too often involves little more than a struggle for power among competing interests. In this article I want to share a radically different way of looking at politics, one that considers the level of collective intelligence people can generate when they're together.

People can be stupider or more intelligent together than they are individually. We see this in relationships, groups, organizations, communities and even whole societies. It shows up clearly in our public life -- from grassroots organizations and radio talk shows, to election campaigns and the activities of government.

In order to understand collective intelligence we need to look beyond the interactions of individuals and groups to observe the behaviors and dynamics of the whole they comprise. We need to focus on the forest, not the trees. Is the whole organization, community or country in question acting intelligently or stupidly -- and why? What helps a group, community or culture to think, learn and respond as intelligently as a bright individual?

From where I see things, it seems that our collective stupidity is driving us to the brink of catastrophe. This makes me think that we should develop our collective intelligence -- and soon. We need ways to better reflect together, to develop positive responses to our shared circumstances, and to co-create our common future. The bad news is that our adversarial, fragmentary political culture actually impedes us in these efforts. The good news is that tools exist which, if we use them well, could move us beyond the stupifying dynamics of our political culture.

By way of illustration, consider how often diversity and conflict get in the way of people thinking and responding well together. Whenever that happens, we need to recognize that collective stupidity is at work. In contrast, practices that support collective intelligence use diversity and conflict to generate greater understanding. Handled properly, diversity alerts us to new perspectives and possibilities, and conflict stimulates rapid collective learning. These are treasures to be utilized, not merely obstacles to be avoided or problems to be solved.

In this article I'll introduce several methods for generating collective intelligence in our public life. Most of these approaches (and many others like them) were not designed explicitly for this purpose, since most people don't think in terms of collective intelligence. The collective intelligence perspective, however, can help us recognize approaches which will serve us well, understand why they work, and figure out how we can synergize them for maximum benefit.

We need a collective intelligence of a kind that may not have characterized the human species in the past.

-- Paul Hawken, James Ogilvy, Peter Schwartz,
in Seven Tomorrows (Bantam, 1982), a report on the work
of the futures research group at Stanford Research Institute.



It was the most unusual and stimulating conference I'd ever attended. I was among 175 people from all over the United States and several other countries, and all of us were passionate about organizational transformation. We converged on Napa, California, on July 4, 1994, for a week-long "Open Space Conference." We were met by no keynote speakers, no schedule of workshops, no panel discussions, no organizational booths. Instead we were told in the first hour how we were going to create our own conference. And then we did that -- elegantly.

We followed the instructions given by Harrison Owen, our facilitator and the creator of Open Space Technology[1]: Anyone who wanted to create a discussion or activity lined up at the microphone, announced their workshop, picked a time and place, and posted it on the wall in big letters. Simple. About 40 minutes later, when everyone who'd wanted to had spoken up, about 60 workshops had been posted and it was time for what Owen called "the village market place": all 175 of us milled around the wall, figuring out what our personal schedules for the week should be. The first meetings began immediately.

It was, as Owen liked to say, more highly organized than the best planning committee could possibly manage -- not only organized, but chaotic as well -- and productive and fun.

It was totally ours and incredibly stimulating. No one was in control. A whirlwind of activity was guided from within by a handful of simple Open Space principles. The most basic principle is that everyone who comes to an Open Space conference must be passionate about the topic and willing to take some responsibility for creating things out of that passion. Among Open Space principles, my favorite is The Law of Two Feet: "If you find yourself in a situation where you aren't learning or contributing, go somewhere else."

There was so much of such high quality and compelling interest going on non-stop that I soon learned to take frequent breaks just to cool down.

The cumulative effect of all this interaction was that within days we'd developed an intense spirit of community that was all the more remarkable for having come about by all of us doing exactly what we each wanted to do.

By midweek the larger implications of Open Space Technology were dawning on some of us. We began wondering what a school would be like if students, teachers, administrators, parents, and interested members of the community did an Open Space conference together once or twice a year. A sense of a new world opened up before us: Open Space conferences could be held by political parties, block associations, churches, unions, the League of Women Voters, race relations groups, homeless people and their advocates, downtown business associations, apartment complex residents.... It would be a whole different way for communities to function, to come to know themselves and create their futures.



A few months later I learned about Future Search conferences[2] in which diverse stakeholders in a community or organization gather to discover common ground. By stakeholder I mean anyone who has a stake in the community or organization, people who are affected by what happens there.

Imagine a gathering of ordinary members of a community -- rich and poor, black and white, old and young, male and female, gay and straight, homeowners and the homeless, dancers and intellectuals, teachers and street sweepers, allies and enemies, industrialists, shopkeepers, labor representatives, government officials, non-profit staff, community activists, and even representatives of surrounding communities and advocates for local wildlife -- the more relevant viewpoints, the better.

In Future Search Conferences, stakeholders come together to review their common history, to clarify the dynamics currently operating in their collective life, and to decide what future they'd like to create together. They explore scenarios and create action groups to bring about the changes they envision. I was surprised to learn that well over a hundred Future Search Conferences had already happened, all over the world.

Then a friend introduced me to the work of MIT management guru Peter Senge, who has been applying this spirit of collective self-creation in corporate settings for years, creating what he calls "learning organizations." A learning organization is an organization that -- as a collective organism -- can learn from its experience. It transforms itself, as needed, to better operate in changing, challenging environments.

Senge teaches people to adjust their ways of thinking about the world so they don't get stuck in dysfunctional patterns. He advocates systems thinking -- the ability to notice dynamic patterns of interrelationship -- because it helps people more deeply understand what's going on and their role in it. And he emphasizes the importance of both personal development and genuine interpersonal dialogue. When people with these skills share an inspiring vision and learn together, they can accomplish miracles.

Senge's potent insights and methods would be invaluable to communities seeking to learn together, to improve their quality of life and to survive what community futurist Robert Theobald calls "the rapids of change."



Open Space, Future Search and learning organizations evoke for me a vision of whole communities able to transform the whole systems in which they live -- citizens working together to continually evolve and bring to fruition visions that they create together.

I now know that these three approaches are only the tip of a very large iceberg. The knowhow now emerging on how to create intelligent, self-organizing human systems is immense and growing daily. Such knowhow makes it possible to build a collective life radically different from politics and governance as we've known them. (This point is further covered in the brief article Changing Worldviews, Changing Politics and the longer one Thinking Holistically beyond Politics and Governance.)

To survive and flourish in the future, we need something beyond individualism, power struggles and majority rule -- something that builds on and preserves the blessings of democracy while taking seriously our deep interconnectedness and context.

I see Open Space, Future Search and learning organizations as the forerunners of new political forms. They are far more sophisticated than the boistrous town meetings of old -- more productive and more inclusive of diverse voices. And they are light years ahead of the shallow, divisive, manipulated electoral numbers games and media debates we've ended up in. These new approaches suggest the possibility that our public life can unfold with far more coherence and collective wisdom than we've previously experienced.

And yet it will take more than widespread use of processes like Open Space and Future Search to change the nature of politics in a society like ours. We need tools to deal with the dysfunctional power dynamics that distort our collective thought and will.



One of the most powerful potential tools we have, I believe, is The Wisdom Council. I first heard about it from its orginator, organizational consultant Jim Rough[4], who proposed a "Wisdom Amendment" to the U.S. Constitution:

"The Wisdom Amendment calls for an annual gathering of twenty-four randomly selected voters to comprise a microcosm of the People of the United States. This small group of citizens meets for a short period (from three days to a month) to create a unanimous, constitutionally sanctioned statement of the Wisdom of the People. As with a jury, members serve only a short time and speak only for themselves. Unlike a jury, each Wisdom Council determines the issues they consider and is facilitated to ensure creative dialogue. The final statements offer leadership but no power of law.... [The Wisdom Council] establishes a collaborative presence at the pinnacle of society, a way to facilitate consensus among all people and a way to voice that consensus. This amendment would establish an annual 'family meeting' for the nation."

This approach addresses an issue I'd never even considered before. It was a revelation to me to realize that we presently have no effective way to unearth and articulate the will of the people. The Wisdom Amendment gives us a way to do that.

Although our electoral process gives us ("we, the people") explicit power -- at least theoretically -- it does not give us an authoritative voice that states our collective interests and perceptions in a form that we can use to guide ourselves, our dialogue and our elected representatives. Without this, our democracy is unduly influenced by powerholders and academics who profess to know what our will is. Their conflicting statements about what "the American people want" confuse us. Our culture offers us only problematic, shallow glimpses of our collective will -- through elections, public opinion polls, talk show debates and letters to the editor.

Let us look at each of these.

In fact, no current form of vox populi is coherent or wise enough to command the respect of either the public or our under-the-influence representatives.

But few would ignore a constitutionally convened council of citizens using state-of-the-art methods to clarify public concerns. People would listen to deep, thoughtful statements of the common good and public will that such an annual council discovered through intelligent exploration of both their differences and their shared sensibilities and interests.

That is what makes the Wisdom Council idea so compelling when compared to other approaches to discovering "the will of the people."



I see three things that are needed for the Wisdom Council to succeed:

1) The Wisdom Council needs top-quality group process and facilitation. Today this condition can be readily satisfied. Few people realize the scope and power of group processes available and the many highly skilled facilitators that abound. Diverse processes could be integrated into customized sequences designed to ensure exceptionally productive Wisdom Council deliberations. This is true despite the depressing history of committees and congresses that has made so many people cynical about the inevitability of collective stupidity. That cynicism is a shell people erect around their deep, but thoroughly abused, faith that participatory democracy can work. Any Wisdom Council success would not only serve as the people's voice, but could also rekindle popular hope, spreading awareness of effective group processes throughout our culture with incalculable reverberations.

2) The Wisdom Council needs to be respected and officially recognized as the pre-eminent voice of the people. That's the reason to establish it through a Constitutional amendment. The people are the source of all legitimate authority in a democracy and, if this is their voice, it deserves the highest position and honor. Although the Wisdom Council would have no formal power over other branches of government, its symbolic placement above or alongside all other democratic institutions would allow it to exercise a profound influence as the current embodiment of public will and wisdom.

3) Citizens need to take very seriously the role of the Wisdom Council as their collective voice. If the Wisdom Council says things certain people agree with, those people will need to tell their representatives (and the media and everyone else) to listen to it. If the Wisdom Council says things that certain people disagree with, then those people need to ask, "Why did they say that?!" In other words, there needs to be active public dialogue regarding the Wisdom Council's pronouncements. Such dialogue would serve not only to shape public awareness and policy, but to prepare the next set of randomly-selected citizens to do an even better job the following year.

The Wisdom Amendment elegantly addresses the complex and crucial question of how to have real participatory democracy in a nation of 250 million people.

By the very act of taking the Wisdom Council seriously, the people would delegate to it all the power it needs, in turn, to empower them to ensure that their will is honored in all areas of public life.

That synergistic relationship between the citizenry and the Wisdom Council would need to be built through the arduous task of passing a Constitutional amendment. That project involves approval by three-fourths of the states and thus a massive grassroots educational campaign, during which people could discover for themselves the potency and possibility of the idea.



I believe the wisest strategy would be to set up Wisdom Councils at the local level and work up towards a national Constitutional amendment campaign. Jim Rough has done many Wisdom Councils in organizations and schools, with remarkable results. For example:

"When twelve students participated in a high school Wisdom Council, they developed six unanimous points. The points were focused on class sizes, the need for creative lessons, more meaningful requirements for graduation, etc. In the meeting students talked about serious matters. Some wanted harder classes. Others needed help to keep up. All wanted a safe place where they could be challenged to learn. At a presentation to the superintendent, principal, and city council, the adults expressed pleasant suprise. Many people had underestimated the level of capability and responsibility that randomly chosen students would demonstrate."

If official and unofficial Wisdom Councils were set up in hundreds of organizations, institutions, neighborhoods, towns and cities across America, it would familiarize people with how they work and what can be done with them. It would transform our public life right where we live it and allow for experimentation in Wisdom Council process and structure. If local (and state and regional) Wisdom Council projects shared their experiences and insights, they could develop and promote increasingly effective variations. This would prepare the way -- through both public awareness and better know-how -- for the success of the amendment campaign and a national Wisdom Council.

Still, it is one thing for the public to know its will, and it is quite another for citizens to have the necessary power to bring their collective intentions to fruition.



Individuals, groups and corporations exist who have accumulated enough power to thwart the will of the people, no matter how clearly stated. When the people's will goes against the will of such powerholders -- as when a majority of the public said they wanted single-payer health care -- those powerholders generally take action to counter it. At this point one of their most effective tools is the electoral process, the intended embodiment of public power.

Although special interests can't always control how we vote, they very often influence which limited options we are presented with. Our electoral choices usually feel like "Coke or Pepsi" with no juice, milk or water on the menu. (The presence of third party candidates, since we hear so little about them, is like having "akjar juice" on the menu. We usually opt for the familiar.) Then, once we elect Senator Coke or President Pepsi, they proceed to do what the most powerful lobbyists tell them to do. Under the present system most politicans can't get re-elected without the money, political organization and voting blocs represented by the most powerful lobbyists.

From a collective intelligence perspective, this problem translates into a question: How can the public will -- which Wisdom Councils bring up into the collective consciousness -- be empowered to shape government?

Among the innovations that speak to this question are campaign finance reforms being pursued by such groups as Common Cause[5] and Public Citizen[6]. Another is Ralph Nader's proposal that every ballot have a "none of the above" option on it. Any election in which most voters vote "none of the above" would be void and have to be re-done with a new slate of candidates. This idea has been endorsed by the California Green Party, among others. Ralph Nader ran a presidential campaign in 1996 under the banner of the California Green Party to raise consciousness about the dominance of money in politics, and what to do about it.[7]



More important than any or all of these (and other) individual innovations is the synergy among them. A new culture will not be built by a few good innovations -- no matter how brilliant they are. It will be built by the synergy generated among many good innovations intelligently connected together. Here's a brief overview of some obvious potential synergies among the few processes described here:

A Wisdom Council would provide the common understandings and shared sense of direction needed to guide communities as they organize themselves using such tools as Open Space, Future Search and learning organizations. Campaign finance reform and the "none of the above" ballot option would help align governments to support this self-organizing public culture. The public power and wisdom thus generated would result in more dialogue, more voting, more answerability and more effective innovation.

Dynamic innovations like these aren't just good ideas. They and hundreds like them (including many already in use, like listening projects, the Center for Living Democracy's grassroots-democracy-oriented American News Service, study circles, community computer networks, etc.) -- if used well, broadly and with an eye for synergy -- would add up to a totally new and immeasurably more satisfying form of public life.

I see these innovations as harbingers of an unprecedented development in human culture -- the capacity for conscious collective evolution. A culture that could consciously evolve would be as radical a leap beyond majority-rule republican democracies as those democracies were beyond the monarchies and empires of old.



[1] Harrison Owen, OPEN SPACE TECHNOLOGY: A USER'S GUIDE (Berrett-Koehler, 1997) and Open Space web page
[2] Marvin Weisbord,, DISCOVERING COMMON GROUND (Berrett-Koehler, 1992) and Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff, FUTURE SEARCH (Berrett-Koehler, 1995).
[3] Peter Senge, THE FIFTH DISCIPLINE (Doubleday, 1990) and, with others, THE FIFTH DISCIPLINE FIELDBOOK (Doubleday, 1994).
[4] Jim Rough and Associates, 1040 Taylor St., Port Townsend, WA 98368. Phone (360) 385-7118. Fax (360) 385-4839. Email Webpage:
[5] Common Cause, 2030 M Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036-3380. Phone (202) 833-1200. Fax (202) 659-3716.
[6] Public Citizen, 1600 20th St., NW, Washington, DC 20009-1001. Phone (202) 588-1000.
[7] People's Campaign '96, P.O. Box 3727, Oakland, CA 94609. Phone (510) 44-GREEN.