Original Collective Intelligence

direct mini-link >> www.bit.ly/OriginalCI

The main stakes for humanity
are not hunger, poverty, peace,
healthcare, education, economy,
natural resources,
or a host of other issues,
but our capability to build new organizations
that are able to provide solutions.
Our main challenge 
is Collective Intelligence.

Jean Fraçois Noubel

The problems that exist in the world today 

cannot be solved 

by the level of thinking 

that created them.

Albert Einstein


Taken from Collective Intelligence: The Invisible Revolution by Jean Fraçois Noubel

See Documents

Why do so many human organizations such as companies, governments, administrations, associations, etc…, that are composed of smart and sensible individuals, act in silly and even destructive ways at the collective level, often against the very will of their own participants?

Why don't large organizations have the same flexibility and adaptability as small groups of people? Is the fact they are big the real cause of this dysfunction?

Are operational effectiveness as defined by parameters including objectives reaching, project management, etc… and democracy at odds with each other? If the answer is yes, then we must also admit to the startling conclusion that a democratic country is not manageable. If we reply no, then why are companies and organizations in general not democratic spaces?

Why has the free software community, without any hierarchy and decisional center, begun to make products that have higher performance than those of the private industry?

Whether the problem is global warming, the decline in biodiversity, world peace, education, healthcare, commerce, employment, technology breakthrough or any other, none of these can be described and understood in their wholeness by organizations as we know them today. They cannot be solved because we are not sufficiently intelligent at the collective level. Who, in daily life, doesn't suffer from the lack of collective intelligence? Are we condemned to individual intelligence and collective incapability?





The Original Collective Intelligence

The original collective intelligence is merely the intelligence practiced in small groups that evolution has endowed us with. We all have a direct experience of it, whether this is in our work, our community life, in team sports, in reflection groups… each of these contexts involve a small number of people placed in sensorial – i.e. spatial – proximity with one another.

This "optimal" group formation also shows up among some social mammals, like wolves, dolphins, elephants, some big cats, monkeys… all have in common the fact they coordinate around an object: the prey, a threat, a toy (stick, stone, water, baby prey…). Thus, with coordinated encircling techniques and attacks, the pack of wolves can catch a prey that is bigger, faster and stronger than any individual wolf.

Such types of organized communities are numerous in humankind. Apart from sports and games where players are coordinated around material objects, most communities in daily life use objects from the symbolic and cultural space. But the dynamics fundamentally remains the same, our senses and our spatial engagement are solicited in a very similar way. Let's review a few examples that we are all familiar with, they will ultimately serve as references that will facilitate our thinking…

In a sports team, each player is an expert who knows what needs doing in real time in relation with the global situation perceived. The team acts as a homogeneous and coordinated entity without information following a hierarchical way. Objectives are reached (scores) in an extremely complex context. In one same sport, each team is different from one another and has its own personality, a whole that cannot be reduced to the only sum of its parts.

In a jazz band, each player perceives the global melody in real time and adapts his or her musical play upon, sometimes in an improvised way, sometimes in a predetermined manner. The way the piece is played defines what is considered as the style of the group, these traits that make it recognizable among all the others.


As for the meeting room, it is made to place each participants in a spatial and temporal proximity that allows them perceive everything that happens: talk, gesture, mood, mimics, writings… it is the established place where the feeling of belonging to something, even temporary, is generated, it is where the tight, friendly, studious, whatever spirit and mood of the community can exist. The aim of the meeting room is to steward collective intelligence by the mean of its spatial architecture.





Characteristics of the original collective intelligence



What are the observable phenomena in the previous examples? They are too numerous for an exhaustive exploration, but let's list seven of the most significant ones, they give us enough grain to grind in order to understand some of the big theoretical and practical principles of the original collective intelligence. See collective intelligence phenomena for deeper inquiry.



An emerging whole: each jazz band, each sports team, each working team has its own personality, a style, a spirit to which we refer as if they were an individuality…. 

When we emphasize the success, the quality and the unity of a group, it is another way to express the fact that this Whole appears so obviously.



A "holoptical" space: the spatial proximity gives each participant a complete and ever updated perception of this Whole. 

Each player, thanks to his experience and expertise, refers to it to anticipate his actions, adjust them and coordinate them with the actions of the others.   Therefore there is an unceasing round trip that works like a mirror between the individual level and the collective one. 

We define holopticism as this set of properties, that is the "horizontal" transparency (perception of the other participants), and the "vertical" communication with the emerging Whole. 

In the examples above, the conditions of the holopticism are given by the physical 3D space ; it is our natural organic senses that serve as interfaces. 

The role of a coach, or an external observer, consists in facilitating the condition of the holopticism.


A social contract

whether it is musical harmony, game rules, or work legislation, the group is shaped around a social contract, tacit or explicit, objective or subjective, that is accepted and put on stage by each participant. 

 The social contract is not only about values and rules of the group, but also the means of its self-perpetuation.



A polymorphic architecture: the mapping of relationships is continuously updated depending on circumstances, expertises, perceptions, tasks to accomplish, relational rules based on the social contract. 

It gets strongly magnetized around expertises, each expert (as recognized by the group) takes the lead one after the other to act according to needs. 

In a sport team for instance, the right winger becomes the leader when the ball comes into his surface, but it can happen that he becomes the goalkeeper when the situation requires it.



A circulating object-link: as Pierre Lévy explains so well in a paper called Collective Intelligence and its objects (1994), "The players use the ball simultaneously as an index that turns between individual subjects, as a vector that allows everyone to design everyone, and as the main object, the dynamic link of the collective subject. We shall consider the ball as a prototype of the linking-object, the collective intelligence catalyzing object". Melody, ball, objective, "object" of the meeting … no doubt that the original collective intelligence gets built upon the convergence of individualities toward a collectively pursued object, whether or not the object is a physical or symbolic one (a project for instance). When they belong in the symbolic space, it is an absolute necessity that these objects must be clearly identified and united in their number and quality by each participant of the group, otherwise this leads to some of those fuzzy situations that all of us has already painfully experienced.



Learning Org

A learning organization: no learning means no adaptation, no intelligence. However the learning process isn't exclusively at the individual level, but also the developing of a relational intelligence that allows a dynamic adjustment with the community. This involves the existence of a social process that handles it and transforms it into an object of cognition.



Gift Economy

A gift economy: in the competition-economy (the one that we know today), we pick something for ourselves in exchange of a compensation (money, most of the time). 

In the gift economy, we give first, then we receive once the community has increased its wealth. 

Raising our children, taking care of the elderly, giving our sweat in a sports team, being involved in an NGO, helping each other in the neighborhood… all these examples show that the gift economy is the absolute base of the social life, this is so obvious that we are mostly unaware of it. 

Could any community be sustainable in the long run if it relied on an individual sacrifice dynamics? In the gift economy, each participant finds a strong individual advantage that motivates him to give the best of himself. 

The gift economy organises the convergence between individual and collective levels.



(Laughter, celebration + experimentation)

When friendships are strained in any group, group intelligence noticeably diminishes.  The social contract in itself is not enough of a glue to keep together any team, pack or community in the long-term.  Professionalism is important but not enough of a bond for ensuring all the other characteristics keep growing.

This 8th characteristic was added by Stella to Jean Fraçois' original model, as it also seems that it's something essential that all intelligent communities have.  And which would understandably escape the notice of a male academic approach (but not a female integral permaculture designers' :)  

Apart from a social contract there is also love or friendship growing between the players, the pack of wolves, the jazz-band.  And frienship & love are generated by working together in a team only if there is also plenty of play, apreciation & celebration of each other going on, as well as celebrating successes of the team.    Playfulness is often about experimenting with new things with a sense of humor, & laughter releases tension in ways that we neglect to our peril.

Part of the emergent whole has to be love & friendship, also.  It is an essential part of the forming story of each group, if it is to grow in intelligence, also because love increases empathy & empathy greatly increases the likelyhood of holopticism happening: we have to empathise with others successfully to know what information is needed by our colleagues, when, as well as what might cause information over-load.  A delicate balance very difficult to provide only by formal structures.

Gift economies are also greatly enhanced the stronger the love-bonds between members of a group are.   And important gifts that enhance the self-confidence of each member (& therefore their individual intelligence) are apreciations, celebrating each other, celebrating each others' talents and accomplishments, as well as the accomplishments of the group.    We are more likely to be patient with our colleagues' mistakes (and so use the mistakes to increase learning in our organization) the more we care about them personally. 

Emerging whole, holopticism, social contract, polymorphic social architecture, circulating objects-link, learning organization, gift economy, play ... here are the main qualities that we will find in all communities in which the original collective intelligence is at work.  

Each characteristic is all at once the cause and the consequence of the other characteristics, none can be taken separately. 

The more they are developed and coordinated together, the more the community is able to evolve and create the future in complex, unexpected and uncertain contexts.


Natural limits of original collective intelligence


If we stick to the definition? we have adopted, the original collective intelligence meets two natural limits:


  • In number: only a limited number of participants can interact efficiently otherwise a too high level of complexity that generates more "noise" than effective results is quickly reached, and this strongly limits the capacity of the group ;


  • In space: participants need to be physically together in a close range so that their natural interfaces (organic senses) can interconnect together. This way they can apprehend the global picture of what happens (holopticism) and adjust their behavior accordingly.


This is the reason why we never see any sport played with eighty players. This limitation is also true for jazz groups, corporate meetings, etc. When the number (of participants) and the distance become too important, a division generally occurs. Other strategies, other organizations have been developed along the evolution, we are now going to review them.

The Growing Forest

Vídeo de YouTube

Holomidal Collective Intelligence

The limits of original collective intelligence disappear with internet, which enables the next level of CI which Noubel calls Holomidal CI.

"This new form relies on the Internet, social media, the sharing of knowledge and resources, a mutualist economy, distributed leadership, individuation, a systemic, holistic and ecological understanding of the world.

Holomidal collective intelligence succeeds pyramidal collective intelligence that gave birth to civilizations thanks to the invention of writing. Pyramidal collective intelligence operates through chains of command, concentration of power and wealth, a market economy based on competition, extraction of resources, labor division.

Today pyramidal collective intelligence has become powerless to address tomorrow’s stakes and complexity. Holomidal collective intelligence, still in its infancy, has already shown unprecedented social creativity, which provokes new forms of technical, scientific and artistic innovation.

We now live in the midst of a fascinating transition phase. A time when all the facts appear to show a planet on the decline. In this time of forecast catastrophes, objectivity requires that we explore the new social ecosystem that grows on the old declining one. How does it organize itself? How does it redefine the public element — the res publica? How does it address education, health, transportation, ecology, food and energy? How does it innovate? What new paths does it offer that today’s conventional world cannot see?

Humanity reinvents itself via social innovation. Everywhere amazing projects flourish.



See also http://ciri.wagn.org/Holomidal_collective_intelligence_Overview+content

Applying All This ... 

From an integral permaculture design perspective, this is very exciting stuff!  Especially when we notice the patterns converging into each other in interesting ways.  

For example how well this seems to fit with chaordic organizational design, and what is actually happening on the P2P movements like the Integral Revolution organizing that is taking off now (Oct 2014) and the calls (and increasingly clear need for) participatory democracy.   A small group of us at the Academy have been working on designing better conferences with the focus of increasing inclusion, and because we know that is so essential to increasing collective intelligence.  

Imitating Nature

If you are a pattern-spotter, you might notice that Holomidal Intelligence is not all that different to how Nature seems to work, which is something that permaculture has been trying to understand in order to use whatever models we can fathom, to have more success in design sustainable human systems - and hopefully entire sustainable societies, in harmony with Nature.

If we are to imitate Nature's complex & most elegant, resilient systems, so far we have worked out what Holmgren would summarize as "we need a diversity of modular systems with quick balancing feedbacks between them in order to create a resilient larger organism".   

Which is how our bodies (& most other complex ecosystems) work: some kind of collective intelligence is clearly coordinating the very complex interactions between the different systems (the circulatory, digestive, hormonal, etc. systems), but also between organs, between tissues & even between the cells of all those tissues.  

& it does seem to be a holonic system because there's nothing pyramidal (nor swarmy) about it: it's all a complex dance of matter & energy exchanged harmoniously within & between holons.   

There have been many great pioneers busy studying how that might work.   & this is really the Holy Grail now, for the reasons very beautifully given by Noubel:

The main stakes for humanity
are not hunger, poverty, peace,
healthcare, education, economy,
natural resources,
or a host of other issues,
but our capability to build new organizations
that are able to provide solutions.
Our main challenge 
is Collective Intelligence.

Instead of an electronic internet based in industrial hardware to pass the vital information back & forth between & within the holons, Nature designed a complex electro-chemical intranet very much based in biology: somehow all the bits do mostly stay in perfect dynamic harmony, or we get sick & die.   

But the capabilities we have now with internet are obvioustly very exciting in this regard: can they be harnessed to imitate however it is that the holons in nature communicate with each other?    

This short video illustrates some of these ideas beautifully, but then confuses swarm intelligence with collective intelligence towards the end - something which Noubel diferenciates between.

Vídeo de YouTube

"We find a complex order within fish populations. They all cooperate without a leader, there's no single brain at the top, giving orders down.  There's no conductor, no director, no master controlling the functions of these fish - they are self-organized.

So, order does not require central coordination.  People can spontaneously organize themselves to create a type of self-organization structure that no individual can intend, comprehend, or perceive, much less coordinate.  

And this is done by free association resulting in spontaneous arrangements, understanding and finding simplicity in complexity.   That's order."

But in fact it's quite a jump from 'order does not require central coordination' to 'people can ...' (do anything approaching such harmony), that this short film claims.

However democratic a cursory romantic look at a shoal of fish might seem, the fish are in fact playing a kind of 'follow the leader' game around a number of key fish.   Which is what happens to public opinion in our society, only that the leaders are often in conflict with each other & they aren't followed quite so harmoniously, no matter how good the rest of us are at being sheeple.  

Even our (human) swarm intelligence leaves a lot to be desired...

You could argue that it's self-evident that we already have lots of people 'spontaneously organizing', from time (picture people coming out of a crowded metro, for just a small example), but the problem is precisely that most of us very much don't intend the results we are seeing (global warming, wars, poverty, etc.)!  

And it is because we're trapped in some kind of swarm behaviour (busy being sheeple), which however has very little to do with intelligence.   Whilst our economic, political & social systems are very much run by pyramidal intelligence 'organs'.

So there's obvioustly a lot more to figure out if we want to get to any truly 'intelligent' collective organization: shoal intelligence won't cut it & we're rebelling en masse against oppressive pyramidal structures.   It seems an increasing number of us want the freedom to think & act autonomously, but we also want (& realize we need) the benefits of some kind of coherent, if not collective thinking and action.  

Designing for collective intelligence is basically about bringing the Self-Responsibility & Cooperate directives of permaculture in harmony for the benefit of the whole and of the individuals - a balance that should be directing all of our designs anyway (that's the reason for directives).

So, back to Nature & to looking at some of the mechanics for how to design for this elusive 'Holomidal Collective Intelligence'.    In complex natural ecosystems that work very well we observe "a diversity of modular systems with quick balancing feedbacks between them that create a resilient larger organism."

The 'quick' is critical and why Original Collective Intelligence (a type quite different from swarm intelligence or pyramidal intelligence) doesn't work for larger organisms: we need a communications system a lot more powerful than that provided by our own senses & bodies, in order to scale up.   We need augmented or 'bionic' eyes, ears, mouths, etc. ... in order to sense & communicate with a much larger (global) environment.  And one with a correspondingly exponential increase in information, also.

In particular we need to design for holopticism in a totally different way (yet, does Nature even do 'holopticism'?), and we also need to figure out how to design effective gift economies on a larger scale (& Nature definately does do that, plentifully).   

But then we can't assume that the same kinds of social contracts that work for smaller groups can scale up.   And what of an object-link?   Are mega-global disasters like climate-change going to effectively serve as an common 'object' to organize around?   Might this problem really end up being a solution for humanity getting its act together and start acting as a beneficial organism rather than a virus on this planet?

One element that seems critical is Inclusion, which is a measure of the social sensitivity (social intelligence) of a group, which is both a factor and a determinant of the diversity of a group.  See Inclusion and Collective Intelligence.

Article by Stella Strega, October 2014

Coordinator Integral Permaculture Academy

Jean Fraçois Noubel

Founder and President of www.TheTransitioner.org, an international research network and think tank of pioneers who are committed to support the emergence of global wisdom driven organizations. Formerly he was one of the co-founders of AOL France and led an assortment of innovative high-tech companies.

in YouTube

"Flash Mobs" are a brilliant example of collective intelligence ... using ART as a "Object Link"

Because of our intelligence we human beings are uniquely capable not only of creating problems, but of doing so on a large scale. Therefore, it is important that we use our intelligence in constructive ways. That’s what warm-heartedness and concern for others lead us to do.

Dalai Lama, Oct.2014
Stella Ne,
30 Apr 2013, 08:42