The collaborative intelligence

The world has become so complex — from trying to feed 7 billion people to comprehending the exponential rise of computer intelligence in every aspect of our lives — that we no longer can count on heroic/brilliant individuals to solve these immense problems.

From corporate boardrooms to educational forums to medical conferences, we see the rise of collaborative intelligence over competitive individualism.

It’s an attempt to survive and prosper in a 21st century environment of increasing uncertainty and change.

If we become mesmerized by the 24-hour news cycle of political bickering, we probably miss this crucial emerging trend of collaborative intelligence.

Dr. Arndt Pechstein, an influential change catalyst advising business, educational and humanitarian organizations worldwide, says, “…The effort must be a collaborative one… In a working structure that is not so different from the human brain, in which billions of neurons build powerful networks, organizations need to become learning organisms where information and ideas flow freely and new things can emerge.”


An example is a new-business success story called WeWork.

WeWork is an office-leasing company that provides shared workspace, community and services for entrepreneurs, freelancers, start-ups and small businesses. Sounds like a nice idea.

This New York City start-up, according to The Wall Street Journal, is valued at $16 billion! Fast Company magazine reports: “Saying that WeWork is just another co-working space is like saying Starbucks was just another coffeehouse.”

Co-working is a growing concept that breaks down the walls of old-model, cubicle-dominated, executive-washroom-equipped offices that dominated corporate America for decades.

These new collaborative-oriented workspaces sometimes have no seating assignments. The open-space arrangement encourages improvised conversations and brainstorming. WeWork’s hipster/collaborative environments are its main selling points. And, as Fast Company notes, more corporations are similarly redesigning office environments with fewer individual offices and more free-flowing work areas.

Co-working/collaborative environments can be seen replacing old-style assembly-line structures that cannot function successfully in the hyper-speed digitized age of constant connectivity.

Valued at $16 billion, WeWork has no brick-and-mortar assets. It does firmly grip an emerging paradigm. It understands rules of surviving and thriving: To prosper in 21st century chaos and complexity, individuals must collaborate more, and work toward creating a greater intelligence than any individual can provide.

At the heart of this powerful, creative paradigm shift is understanding limitations of the “heroic” tradition that has dominated the cultural mindset for centuries.

In school, we were taught that history is the result of the actions of great men (and an occasional great woman). This seemed obvious. To many, it still is obvious.

But it’s never been true; it’s just the way we’ve been taught to think about history.


How were we taught in school about the American Revolution? We were told (and had to regurgitate it back on exams) that this monumental event primarily was the result of heroic actions by George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, with a few nods to Paul Revere and Patrick Henry.

These clearly were brave, brilliant men. But they would not have been positioned to make history if not for the preceding decade filled with thousands of people meeting informally in taverns, coffee houses and public squares to converse, argue and debate key issues and concerns.

Stimulated by caffeine, alcohol and hundreds of pamphlets published by individuals and groups promoting diverse philosophical and political points of view, a more cohesive drive for revolutionary change slowly emerged. From this messy, provocative, boisterous, chaotic, collective buzz, the revolutionary mindset formed.

For example, historian Bruce Richardson writes about The Green Dragon, the most celebrated of Boston’s coffee-house taverns.

“It stood on Union Street, in the heart of the town’s business center from 1697 to 1832, and figured in practically all the important local and national events during its long career. Red-coated British soldiers, colonial governors, bewigged crown officers, earls and dukes, citizens of high estate, plotting revolutionists of lesser degree, conspirators in the Boston Tea Party, patriots and generals of the Revolution — all these frequently gathered at The Green Dragon to discuss their various interests over their cups of coffee, tea and stronger drinks. In the words of Daniel Webster, this famous coffee-house tavern was the “headquarters of the Revolution.”

The author of the book “The Colonial Tavern: Crucible of the American Revolution,” Salvatore Colleluori, writes, “While alcohol was a prominent fixture in colonial life, oftentimes the location where one consumed said alcohol was equally as relevant. Public houses, and more specifically taverns, played an especially important role — they weren’t simply places to drink. Rather, they served as a venue to meet like-minded individuals, and functioned as clearinghouses and test beds of revolutionary ideas.”

And these ideas were not only fueled by alcohol and caffeine, but by thoughts printed in hundreds of small, independent pamphlets. Historian Bernard Bailyn writes, “There were more than 400 pamphlets published in the colonies on the imperial controversy up through 1776, and nearly four times that number by war’s end in 1783. These pamphlets varied in their theme and approach, including tracts of constitutional theory or history, sermons and orations, correspondence, literary pieces and political debate.”

Pamphlets were one of the most important conveyors of ideas during the imperial crisis. Often written by elites under pseudonyms and published by booksellers, they have long been held by historians as the lifeblood of the American Revolution. Today these small, independent pamphlets would be blogs.

While history includes the acts of heroic/famous men and women, these individual acts do not explain the dynamic that creates historic change. It’s like expecting to understand the nature of an iceberg by observing and understanding only the small section visible above the ocean.

History percolates up from the depths of hidden collaborative energy. It operates from the ground up, not top down. History is much more a mirror of chaos theory (underlying patterns of feedback loops and spontaneous self-organization) than it is the neatly laid-out dates and timelines of individual heroic actions we were taught.
Given the level of complexity of issues facing us today and moving forward, the paradigm shift must accelerate from the Heroic Tradition of the Individual to that of Collaborative Intelligence.

This “shift” has greater potential in today’s digital age than ever before. The astounding success of WeWork is one example.

WeWork’s $16 billion value is recognition of the importance of creating collaborative business environments, where people are not only encouraged to bounce ideas off each other in creative, spontaneous sessions, but where ideas are encouraged to percolate up to top executives and then are organized into collective decisions.

Another example of this collaborative trend is a recent New York Times article titled, “Executive Mentors Wanted: Only Millennials Need Apply.” It says, “Now, many young professionals have a new mandate: Drag the boss into the 21st century… While businesses chase evanescent market trends and grapple with a fast-moving future, millennial mentors, as many companies call them, have emerged as a hot accessory for executives.”

Millennials are more naturally tuned into the inherently collaborative environment of the Web and 21st-century computer intelligence. Many leading Baby Boomer executives realize that the old top-down-cubicle-executive-washroom paradigm doesn’t cut it in today’s world of increasing technological connectivity.


Thomas W. Malone is one of the world’s most innovative thinkers focusing on how to invent organizations for the 21st century. To enhance his focus, he became the founding director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence.

In an interview on, he points to Wikipedia as a great example of a high-quality intellectual product with almost no centralized control and no financial reward for participants. “We’re likely to see lots more examples of Internet-enabled collective intelligence — and other kinds of collective intelligence as well — over the coming decades.”

The key question creating the framework for the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence is, “How can people and computers be connected so that — collectively — they act more intelligently than any person, group or computer has ever done before? Malone points out, “If you take that question seriously, the answers you get are often very different from the kinds of organizations and groups we know today.”

Among the projects Malone and his staff are working on is CoLab, an online community of almost 4,000 people working to solve climate change. Another project seeks to measure collective intelligence using some techniques used to measure individual intelligence.

The research yielded a key insight: Intelligence emerging from a large group of people, when properly seeded, is “greater” than the intelligence of any one member. Indeed, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

This speaks to a point raised earlier in this article, the need for a paradigm shift from the Heroic Tradition that sees special individuals as the generators of historical change to a paradigm of collaborative intelligence.

Experiments using consciously generated human-collaborative intelligence have successfully accomplished feats from mapping Mars to picking Kentucky Derby winners with extraordinary accuracy.

James Surowiecki, author of the book, “The Wisdom of Crowds,” and subject of a New Yorker article, points out, “In November of 2000, NASA did something unusual: it asked amateurs to help it map the surface of Mars. The agency set up a website called Clickworkers, where people could take a short tutorial on how to classify Martian craters and then get to work clicking on photos of Mars. NASA then aggregated all those clicks to come up with a Martian-crater map. There were two very interesting things about the results. First, although there was no financial incentive to participate, more than 100,000 people took part in the study, generating more than 2.4 million clicks. Second, and even more striking, the collective product of all those amateur clickers was very good — as a report put it, their “automatically computed consensus” was “virtually indistinguishable from the inputs of a geologist with years of experience in identifying Mars craters.”

A new technology company with the intriguing name Unanimous A.I. has figured out ways to amplify the intelligence of human groups using computer algorithms modeled after “swarms.”

“Swarm intelligence” is a genetic tool that results in flocks of birds flying in perfect formation, fish being able to “school” to survive, and bees and ants forming agile, adaptable colonies. Based on this swarm intelligence, Unanimous A.I. computer technology makes it possible for humans to group together online and effectively combine knowledge and insights into a greater intelligence than any individual in the group could have.

In one case, a group successfully picked the first four finishers of the Kentucky Derby in exact order.   TJ

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