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Things to do to make a difference with co-intelligence




"What should I do?"


Several people have recently asked me what I'd recommend they do about what's going on in the world. As Co-Intelligence Institute supporter Ray DiHanlon wrote, as he contemplated his grandchildren and the prospects of war and terrorism:

I have become interested in your work, and that of others who see solutions in the development of better group intelligence. I agree that this needs to be a bottom-up process, and that we need to get smarter locally and reach out and connect in distributed networks. But I am wondering if we can achieve this fast enough, before the situation gets so much worse that it gets a lot more difficult to do. I don't mean to be alarmist here, but I think we really do have a problem, and I would like to know what you, and the people you know and with whom you communicate, think is the best

I don't have any easy answers to this concern about time. We are all struck by the way things are unfolding lately. There is a tremendous amount of work to do to address our circumstances wisely, and much of it can only be accomplished quickly in our dreams; reality always takes longer.

I've been involved in social change work for four decades. I and others almost always felt a justifiable sense of urgency. But our short-term focus undermined our ability to see our urgent issues and suffering AS SYMPTOMS MADE INEVITABLE BY DEEPER REALITIES -- realities which could only be addressed with longer-term strategies.

I've come to believe we'll only succeed -- in the long haul -- to the extent we apply our energy and attention more strategically, and at deeper levels. I believe more of us need to shift FROM concentration on issues TO focusing on the capacity of society to deal with issues well -- and FROM relieving suffering TO changing the social systems that generate suffering.

If we don't free our attention FROM the immediate problems and crises TO the sources of those problems and crises, our problems and crises will continue to grow until they overwhelm us. There will no longer be any resources to focus on their deeper causes.

In fact, the mounting crises we're experiencing now can be traced to not handling systemic causes and weaknesses earlier. Wars were ended, but new wars were begun. Bad candidates were defeated, but new bad candidates won. Nefarious activities were exposed, but new nefarious activity developed. We keep cleaning the garbage out of the river. At what point do we climb out of the river and walk upstream to find out where the garbage is coming from and handle THAT?

What constitute "strategic approaches" and "deeper causes" is a subject of much debate. Some say the causes are our spiritual or moral shortcomings. Others stress that we need to transform our underlying cultural assumptions (usually from "old paradigm" to "new paradigm"). Still others point to socioeconomic institutions such as capitalism or corporate personhood, or the way money dominates elections and the media. All these are valid points of strategic focus, transcending the noise of issues and crises.

Most of you are familiar with my perspective on this. I believe we lack the collective capacity not only to address issues and crises, but to address the underlying realities listed in the previous paragraph. I believe we need to put serious and primary attention on building that collective capacity to address _whatever_ our situation is.

I usually summarize that capacity with the words "co-intelligence." I call a system that has that capacity "a wise democracy." I believe if we built a co-intelligent wise democracy, we'd be able to address everything else well.

But I don't believe that building a co-intelligent, wise democracy is inherently a bottom-up process. Neither is it a top-down one. It is a whole-system process.

In certain situations it will start from the top, with leaders inspiring the grassroots to action. In other situations it will start from the bottom, with citizens inspiring or demanding that leaders and representatives take action.

But I believe that _what_ is done -- the actions people do and inspire others to do -- includes establishing institutions that formalize and empower "the deliberation and reflection of We the People." In other words, I'm advocating creating institutions that strengthen the collective intelligence and wisdom of whole communities and countries.

The most promising institutions I've found for this purpose involve temporary, official, randomly selected ( = diverse, reflective of the population, not corrupted) citizen deliberative councils(<> and <>). They function like this:

a) This microcosm of a community or country (the council) reflects on an issue or "the state of the union." It studies the facts of the matter from all sides and has an unusually clear and creative conversation using its diversity to discover deeper insights into how to further the common good. It is given the help it needs to do all this and to make its conclusions known to The People as a whole who, with their representatives, have been watching the process expectantly.

b) The People as a whole (newly informed by the council) talk about the situation among themselves in their families and bars, through media, in organized public conversations, and everywhere else. The ideas and possibilities developed by the council ripen into informed public judgment and public will, shaping the activities of politics and governance. (This would happen indirectly or very directly, depending on the role and design of the council. There are many possible roles and designs...) .

Now, were this to happen over and over, in all aspects of our democracy --

@ identifying issues,
@ problem-solving,
@ policy-making,
@ visioning,
@ evaluating legislation and ballot initiatives,
@ evaluating candidates,
@ overseeing officials,
@ and all the rest,

then a very powerful collective intelligence would be generated that could creatively and wisely digest the complexity of all issue and steer civilization in positive directions.

There is no One Way to get to such a wiser democracy. But a number of people and institutions are thinking strategically about how to proceed. Still, it is far too big a project for anyone to be in charge.

But right now there are many things that could be done by anyone who has the understanding and passion to undertake them. Below is a list of six categories of actions you could take. If you do anything in any of these categories, you will be making a tremendous contribution.




1) ENHANCE UNDERSTANDING OF THE EMERGING POSSIBILITIES -- and realities -- of a wiser democracy based on citizen deliberation and reflection.

Citizen deliberative councils have been held hundreds of times (albeit seldom officially, except in Denmark) and research and development has been done toward more powerful applications. I've been compiling and summarizing this work and I hope my book "The Tao of Democracy" (available in February 2003) will be a good resource. (Another book is in the works, giving even more details and possibilities for a wise democracy.) An excellent currently available online resource is "A Call to Move Beyond Public Opinion to Public Judgment" <>.

We could all use more learning, teaching, research and promotion to enhance our collective knowledge in this area.

It is unlikely that the public will participate in building a wiser democracy if it doesn't know about the amazing options that are available. However, I've found that when people DO learn what is possible and what has already been done, they find the prospects exciting. They respond especially to clear descriptions of obviously sensible democratic innovations (like the way the Danish Parliament uses consensus conferences to study technical issues) and to the stories of people who have participated in such councils.

Compelling, visionary information is the foundation upon which everything else will be built. Anything done to help get such information out helps build that foundation.



Articulate the relationship between a society's issues and its collective intelligence (its capacity to address those issues well), so the importance of improving our institutions of collective intelligence -- citizen deliberative councils, public dialogue, adequate media, quality of life statistics, etc. -- becomes clear. Communicate this to issue-advocacy groups, soliciting their participation in improving society's collective intelligence -- if only to help them get their favorite issues addressed well (at last!). Get the empowerment of citizen deliberation on the agenda of every group you are a part of.

Activists are the ones already engaged in trying to create change. We need to engage as many of them as possible in this new perspective. We can start with the ones who "get it" and get excited enough to pioneer the needed breakthroughs. Others may get inspired later when the possibilities have become more visible.



3a) You could convene one or two dozen diverse local citizens for several days to consider a given issue. Have them hear presentations about 3-6 significantly different ways to address the situation, and let them ask all the questions they want. Then have them dynamically facilitated <> to a creative outcome. Finally, publicize their comments and recommendations as broadly as you can. This is not likely to be as politically powerful as an official, randomly selected Wisdom Council or Citizens Jury®, but it may be a relatively cheap and easy-to-organize option, and it will show people what's possible.

3b) Alternatively, you could set up CDCs in your local area. You would research Wisdom Councils <>, Citizens Juries <>, citizen panels <>, etc. <>, and promote a local city council resolution or citizen initiative to set up an official citizen deliberative council in your community. (If there is interest in pursuing this, the Co-Intelligence Institute will develop proposed resolutions and organizing guidelines and networks for organizers to use.)

3c) Finally, you could join existing efforts, such as Ned Crosby's to establish a Citizens Initiative Review in Oregon <> or <> or Senator Gravel's National Initiative for Democracy <> -- both of which involve citizen deliberative councils evaluating ballot initiatives -- one at the state level, the other at the national level. (Once the ballot initiative process is cleaned up, it becomes a very powerful resource for changing other things in our system.) Or you could volunteer with Jim Rough's effort to promote a Citizens Amendment to the Constitution to establish a national Wisdom Council <> or <>.


4) SUPPORT ORGANIZATIONS that are working for a wiser democracy based on citizen dialogue, deliberation and reflection. These include:

Co-Intelligence Institute <>
Dialogue to Action Initiative (and the National Coalition for
    Dialogue and Deliberation) <>
Center for Wise Democratic Practices <>
Healthy Democracy <>
Deliberative Democracy Consortium <>
Civic Practices Network <>
Mary Parker Follett Foundation <>

Alternatively, you could help promote wisdom that has already arisen from collective dialogue among diverse people, such as "The Earth Charter" <> and "Towards a Global Ethic" <> by the Parliament of the World's Religions.



There are many opportunities to nurture a culture of dialogue right in your own bioregion, county, city, town or neighborhood.

You can organize
listening circles <>,
study circles <>,
open space conferences <>, and/or
world cafes <>
to explore public issues. Simple versions of these dialogue processes are relatively easy for beginners (or existing group leaders or facilitators) to facilitate.

You can go further and get trained in challenging approaches like Dynamic Facilitation <>,
Future Search Conferences <>, or
Nonviolent Communication <>
to help stakeholders work through complex, controversial situations. (You can also get trained in open space and world cafe, for these, too, though simple in their basics, can be honed for creative mastery.)

Most of the above methodologies have networks of practitioners who can offer guidance.

Among the many other resources for community dialogue are The National Issues Forum <> and the Dialogue to Action Initiative <>. Related community activities can be explored on "Ways to make a Community Stronger, Wiser, More Resilient and Engaged" <> and Community Co-Intelligence <>


6) USE YOUR UNIQUE POWER -- individually and collectively.

Use your unique capacities, connections, status, etc., to make things happen. Get together with friends or associates to brainstorm ways WHO YOU ARE AND WHO YOU KNOW -- individually and collectively -- could make a difference. (For hints on how to do this, see "Engaged Co-Intelligent Citizenship" at <>.) Then work out how to actually do some of these things, using each other to keep your vision alive and your work moving ahead. Create study groups, support groups, and action groups around this work, these ideas, and the vision of a co-intelligent, wise democracy. Remember that good dialogue, food, fun, purpose and mutual tolerance and respect build meaningful, enjoyable, effective communities of activity.


If you none of these appeal to you and you want to explore other ways to use and promote co-intelligence in your life and community, check out the other links provided at the top of this page ("Things to do to make a difference with co-intelligence" <>). There are literally hundreds of things that could be done, all of which help create the wisdom-based society we need.


I hope this is useful to you. The world needs the creative engagement of every one of us now. Future generations are watching our choices.

Tom Atlee