Evolving Collective Intelligence by Tom Atlee

Exploring how to generate the collective wisdom we need

Exploring how to generate the collective wisdom we need

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May 08, 2008

Whole System Learning and Evolution -- and the New Journalism

A few days ago I stumbled on a new model for whole-system intelligence inspired by some work my friend Peggy Holman is doing with Journalism that Matters. These journalists are reexamining the kinds of stories they tell and their role in democracy, especially in light of how the rise of bloggers and other citizen journalists challenges mainstream media. Journalism that Matters is trying to revision that challenge into a create leap for the whole field.

JTM Systm Intel.jpg

I suspect this model is a draft and will shift over the coming months. This original version takes the form of four overlapping circles -- INFORMATION, CONVERSATION, VISION, and ACTION -- arranged in a circle such that they flow round and round to generate collective intelligence -- an iterative, creative, collective learning cycle. Here's how it goes:

(1) Information is taken from the world into (2) conversations about specific concerns or questions, where diverse perspectives and stories are shared by different parts of a whole community, situation or issue. Out of those conversations come new understandings, relationships, and possibilities -- in a context of a greater sense of community among those diverse people and perspectives. They become inspired to create (3) a new collective vision together that includes what is most important to all of them, and decide to organize themselves and others to realize that vision, finally (4) taking real action in the world that addresses their original concerns or questions. As their work goes on and they experience what actually happens as a result of their actions, they review those outcomes and learn lessons that become (1) new stories and information to be preserved and told to those who need them. Out of that body of work and information, new players or questions arise and come together in (2) conversation, and the cycle continues.

To generate intelligence of, by, and for the whole system, the whole process needs to be informed by a shared intention for individual and collective well-being. The people involved are doing all this IN ORDER TO create better conditions for themselves and their community.

In each phase of the cycle, there is a different relationship to story: In the INFORMATION phase, stories are told and preserved. This is the traditional role of news media, as well as libraries, educational institutions, websites, etc. In the CONVERSATION phase, stories are shared. What we mean here by "stories" is not just stories of events, but all sorts of narratives, including the worldviews people have and the meaning that they are making out of what's happening. In the VISION phase, what's central is that people are imagining narratives about what they want to do together or how they wish to live together. A vision is a story of the future. Then in the ACTION phase, they start living out their vision-story -- as well as the problems, complications and variations that arise out of their attempts to live it, which are also lived stories. And then those lived stories -- more or less reflected on and learned from -- become told as INFORMATION and the cycle continues.

Each one of these phases can be seen, understood, and used as an entry point, an intervention point, or a departure point. Here are just a few dynamics that can be illustrated by this model:
* Information flows in and out of any given pool of information (database). It may or may not be carried into a conversation.
* One can often start off a cycle of community intelligence by convening people from different perspectives into a conversation around a specific shared inquiry. But:
* People often leave the conversational world without moving on to any collective vision or activity. They just go back to their lives.
* A leader or visionary can provide a vision that may or may not arise from conversation and that may or may not be acted upon. For "whole system" intelligence, the vision may originate from one person or part of the whole, but it needs to continue through the cycle and ultimately be digested collectively through conversation, perhaps becoming altered in the process, thereby become "owned" by all concerned.
* People can enter this cycle by joining an organization that is pursuing some action guided by an inspiring vision -- and gain experience in the process. But they often leave the organization in frustration, their concerns and experiences lost to any collective learning that might be possible.
* Many groups who are acting in the world seldom seriously review what they are doing, often using power, PR, and denial to prevent real reflection. On the other hand, critics are often stuck in the negative side of the review stage, and their insights are poorly utilized by the larger system.
* Sometimes a potentially good review process never actually produces actionable lessons (information) or reaches the conversation stage where the whole system can go over it enroute to a renewed vision.
* Some people get stuck in questions, and some in the warm embrace of community. Organizations are formed that ossify into rote pursuit of a soon out-of-date vision. And some people live in the experiences of the moment without ever doing much with what they learn. All of this is, on its own terms, OK. It just doesn't generate real INTELLIGENCE.

This model can be generalized to cover many other things than journalism, but it does highlight areas into which the new journalism can expand to enhance the collective intelligence of communities and democratic societies. Journalists can not only report the news. They can convene and report on conversations on public issues. They can track the understandings, relationships and possibilities that emerge. They can do what Peggy Holman calls "possibility journalism" in which they ask of any situation about which they are reporting, "What is possible now?" They can help communities come to shared visions in forums that lead to collective action -- all of which can be reported on. And they can pull together the many perspectives on how those actions are unfolding, offering a mirror in which the community or country can experience itself as a whole, see the ups and downs of what it is doing, and the many viewpoints that make it up. All of which can be grist for the next round of conversations called forth by journalists for the increasing wellbeing of the community and all in it. In this way, tremendous consciousness is brought to the evolution of the community or nation, and tremendous collective intelligence generated.


posted by Tom Atlee on Thursday May 8 2008

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