Collaborative intelligence is the capacity
to work with the world around us, not dominate it, fight it, hide
from it, ignore it or waste it. It notably includes our ability
to work with people and to help them work together. It tends
to have a certain elegance about it, minimizing the use of force.
That is because the energy for whatever happens comes from the
natural tendencies of the people and lives involved -- including
our own. Our ability to work well in and with the energy that's
actually present -- that is our collaborative intelligence.
We can observe collaborative intelligence
in the phenomena called "flow" (exemplified by good
teamwork and jazz improvization), in the elegant and nonviolent
victories of Aikido masters (who move
with the energy of their opponents), and in ecological practices
like composting which work with the forces of nature to achieve
human ends with little energy input or waste.
Collaborative intelligence is the ability
to produce synergy in one's environment or in one's relationship
with that environment. Dialogue,
for example, requires the exercise of collaborative intelligence
by people working together towards greater shared understanding.
Open Space Technology and Dynamic Facilitation are
among the forms of dialogue that most notably "follow the
energy" of a group and therefore use and evoke collaborative
intelligence most vividly. We can also note that people with
high levels of collaborative intelligence make great facilitators
and convenors of dialogues of all kinds.
Another example of collaborative intelligence
is finding lessons in -- and assistance from -- the problems of
life. Some call it "making lemonade out of lemons."
When I am fired from my job, I can use that break in my life
to find a more satisfying career. When I get a disease, I can
use my bedridden neediness to take time out to reflect on my life
and to connect more with friends and family. When my community
is struck by disaster, I can use the opportunity to help my neighbors
and gather people to think and feel and dream together about how
to make our community more resilient.
Interestingly, collaborative intelligence
be built into a system, it can be part of a culture. For example
we might say that a culture of dialogue and a culture of civility
are systemic forms of collaborative intelligence that invoke collaborative
intelligence in individuals. In these cases, the collaborative
intelligence is as much a part of the culture as it is of the
So collaborative intelligence is part of
all collaborative phenomena, from dancing to barn raisings to
planting a pear tree outside a south-facing window so that the
leaves provide shade in the summer and then fall of in the winter,
letting the sun into the house (which involves knowing how to
collaborate -- and aligning oneself -- with both sun and tree).
In all these cases, we find people applying their intelligence
with each other or with the life around them.
Collaborative intelligence and collective
For obvious reasons, collaborative intelligence
is often associated with collective
intelligence in groups. When people work well together, they
tend to generate collective intelligence. At the group level,
it is easy to think these two overlapping forms of co-intelligence
are the same thing.
However, many aspects of collective intelligence
have little to do with collaborative intelligence, especially
in larger systems where most people don't know each other. For
example collective memory banks (databases, libraries, etc.),
systemic feedback loops and appropriate
economic indicators play major roles in collective intelligence
but have little to do with collaborative intelligence.
Just as collective intelligence can exist
without collaborative intelligence, so collaborative intelligence
can exist in circumstances that have little to do with collective
intelligence. Collaborative intelligence reaches beyond collective
intelligence to our collaborative engagement with situations,
with nature, and with our deepest selves. The Aikido master who
deftly side-steps a charging opponent and helps him on his way
is not exercising collective intelligence, but rather merging
his own intelligence with the energy of the battle, and moving
with it. Likewise, the permaculture
gardener carefully observes the interactions among plants and
animals, seeking to learn synergies she can collaborate with to
serve the organisms involved, including herself. There is no
meaningful collective intelligence at work between her and her
garden (although we might say there is a built-in sort of non-human
collective intelligence among the garden organisms).
The distinction with collective intelligence
can be clear if we stay grounded in the fact that collaborative
intelligence is a way of excercising intelligence. It
is not the emergent intelligence of a collective entity like a
group or community (collective intelligence).
Of course a collectively intelligent group
could use its collective intelligence in collaborative or controlling
ways -- or even use collaborative intelligence to help it compete.
For example, a company can use better teamwork (collaborative
intelligence) to build a more collectively intelligent company
that can thereby dominate its market (non-collaborative intelligence).
So collaborative intelligence can be used at any level of social
When we don't use collaborative intelligence
-- especially at higher levels of social organization -- we can
generate some some serious problems...
Collaborative intelligence and our collective
A large part of our collective problems
come from our efforts to get what we want from the world without
taking into account its needs or its wisdom. This leaves our economic
and technological systems overextended, energy intensive and vulnerable
to sudden collapse -- while depleting the natural and human systems
they depend on.
We'd be wise not only to care for nature
and communities, but to learn from them. Natural systems tend
to be resilient, thanks to their living complexity, which has
been evolving for billions of years into a level of built-in wisdom
that continuously amazes scientists and romantics alike. Most
modern cultures are arrogant enough to think that they can create
highly complex systems from scratch -- without learning from and
working with natural cycles -- and get away with it. We lack the
patience and humility to learn from nature how to collaborate
with it to grow what we need. Sometimes it seems we only have
the capacity to force nature to tell us enough of its secrets
to take what we want.
This difference is visible in the distinction
between indigenous science and modern science. Indigenous science
-- the science practiced by native peoples -- learns the dynamics
and spirit of nature in a particular place, so that the learner
can develop a right relationship, a respectful partnership with
the life forms and natural dynamics in his or her environs. This
is collaborative intelligence at its best. Modern science, in
contrast, attempts to find universal causal principles that will
allow technicians to manipulate physical reality to construct
and extract without having to give much, if anything, back; without
having to belong or owe or love. Take the money and run.
If you look at the big picture, our computers
have sadly been used mostly to increase our capacity to take the
money and run, to efficiently extract and move what we want from
point A to point B, faster and farther, with less expense, effort
or obligation. The interconnectedness this has woven into our
culture has added to our ability to extract life from each other,
from communities, from the highly-evolved and productive natural
systems around us. We suck out life, and leave deadness behind.
Look at the hills that are mined or clearcut. Look at the boarded-up
towns, the megalopolis slums. Look at the faces on the trains
and in the cars (even the well-to-do ones), the endless cars and
trucks laying their tracks of stone over everything, driving weather
to extremes (through global warming). This is a web of death,
as brittle as a dead branch, ready to snap. It doesn't matter
how fast the pieces move, how vast the masses, statistics, or
cities are, how bright the colored plastic. It is not alive and
it is forced. It dominates life, instead of working with it,
and so has to bring in tons of energy from the outside in order
to function at all.
Permaculture offers one view out. Permaculture
has the solidity of modern science yet the sensitivity of indigenous
science. Permaculture has principles, universal ecological design
principles. And once you learn them, you throw them away far enough
that you can then look at the life that is all around you and
really see it -- see what it does, what it needs, what it has
to offer, what kind of dance it is inviting you into. Permaculture
teaches us -- those of us who have forgotten -- how to work with
nature, to become partners with Life, so that plants and animals
and dirt and water and weather and sun yield us food and clothing
and shelter and energy and meaning freely and vibrantly without
having to be hacked, yanked, blocked, forced and poisoned. Permaculture
systems are resilient, because they use the natural tendencies
of things to do what they naturally do, all arranged so that they
are all useful to and supportive of each other. You don't have
to poison the slugs; the ducks will eat them. The ducks will swim
in the pond you made by digging out earth with which to build
your aesthetic, well insulated home, whose greywater flows through
a marsh you built -- complete with lovely cattails -- to purify
it before it arrives in the pond where the ducks swim above the
I saw these things I have just described
on a visit to an actual permaculture site near Point Reyes, California.
It had a profound impact on me. It was more Eden than farm, more
work of art than constructed development. It was not planned and
built. It had grown and evolved for several years, with
the equal participation of the land, plants, animals, and humans.
The humans brought to the dance their conscious observation, thinking
and caring -- their collaborative intelligence. Next year that
site won't be the same, because it will have led to something
else, equally beautiful and productive, ever new.
People like I met there don't generate massive
social and environmental problems. They don't create global warming,
racism and toxic waste dumps. Their spirit is collaborative, patient,
spiritual, eager to give as much as to take, happy to belong and
co-create, loving the wisdom that grows so deeply all around them
and curious to see what it will do next, and what it has to tell
Collaborative intelligence is fundamental
to our survival. If we can learn this gigantic lesson -- if we
can see that what is pulling us down is our unwillingness to resonate
and work with the world's needs -- not just this or that "cause"
of this or that individual problem -- then our grandchildren will
come to know again what life is all about. And they will carry
it on, they will belong to the Earth again -- and to each other.
And then human culture will once again be
more like a dance than a march.