Pattern #19


We invite your participation in evolving this pattern language with us. Use the comment section at the bottom of this page to comment on its contents or to share related ideas and resources.

Pattern Card

Click to enlarge or download Pattern Card.

Distributed Intelligence Card - version 1


To download the 70 pattern cards, an overview, and the complete Wise Democracy Pattern Language use the DOWNLOAD button.

Distributed Intelligence

Many diverse individuals and groups have intelligence to apply to shared situations. So minimize alienation, domination and conformity while encouraging and creatively engaging many diverse voices and players. Enable them to call forth, organize and tap their vast collective intelligence and parallel processing capacity for better solutions.

Related: 16 Crowdsourcing, 36 Microcosms, 41 Nurturing Social Capital, 42 Partnership Culture, 45 Powerful Questions, 63 Universal Participation, 67 Whole System in the Conversation

Going deeper …

This is an edited version of the video on this page.

One form of collective intelligence is the fact that people, individual people, can apply their intelligence to the same issue or situation, and give contributions to it. Different groups have their own special perspective or information that they can offer to the situation. Dozens or thousands of people can independently think about a shared question or project – what we call “parallel processing” – and then give input on what they are thinking, sometimes even revising what other people have contributed, like on Wikipedia.  (An interesting electronic manifestation of parallel processing is that millions of people sometimes volunteer their computers’ computing power to an organized shared computation than any one computer would not be able to accomplish.  A dark side of this is malware that can take over computers to work together without permission, often for undesirable ends.)

Distributed intelligence can also involve conversations where ideas go back and forth, and the ways people and groups are thinking are influenced by the ways other people and groups are thinking, and that adds an additional layer of collective intelligence to the distributed collective intelligence.

But the main point of this pattern is that, given any situation, there are lots of people who have lots of different kinds of smarts – and resources for smarts, like information and perspective – to bring into a collective inquiry about whatever the situation is.

So we need to be aware of that resource as part of what wise democracy is all about.  It’s a valuable resource and you don’t want to waste it or misuse it or erode it. The pattern says “Wise democracy seeks to minimize alienation, domination and conformity“ because with alienation people are not going to work together. With domination, certain voices are going to rule over other voices, or silence other voices. And conformity, everybody’s going to think the same. So all of those reduce the potency of distributed intelligence.

You want the diversity. You want good ways to handle diversity, but you want diversity in the first place. As I’ve noted in several diversity-related patterns – but it’s worth mentioning here again – is the fact that people think of diversity nowadays largely in terms of the kinds of diversity we use to oppress each other: race, class, gender, culture, sexual orientation, these are kinds of diversity. If somebody is in the in-group or the out-group in terms of the larger culture, people in the in-group mess with people in out-group in various ways, silence them, beat them up, don’t listen to them, think of them as inferior….

So we want diversity, and we want to be able to use it well. We don’t really like the alienation, domination, conformity, and we don’t want to think of diversity only in terms of those forms of oppression and liberation. We want to think of all the different ways people are diverse, particularly things that have specifically to do with intelligence. How do they think, what is their perspective, what kind of information do they have? What kind of care do they bring to a conversation? These are forms of diversity which are independently variable from these other more obvious forms of diversity. We want to protect all those kinds of difference, and not have alienation, domination, and conformity mess with them.

So we want to encourage and creatively engage many diverse voices. In doing so we are enlivening the distributed intelligence that is available, and then we can tap it, and tapping into it will give us better solutions, a better way forward than we had before, when we were less aware, and better solutions than we would have if we let alienation, domination, or conformity squeeze everybody down into a distributed stupidity or an alienated intelligence.

(Note:  This pattern covers the important intelligence dimension of the Crowdsourcing pattern and, as such, centers more on the process of collective intelligence, whereas crowdsourcing focuses on the gathering together of shared resources – any resources.  Another similar pattern, Communal Intelligence, focuses on the evolving collective knowledge of a community about its own affairs, and the role of professional and citizen journalism in that.)

Video Introduction (7 min)

Examples and Resources

  • Networks
  • Science Link
  • Open Space CII-Link
  • Dynamic Facilitation CII-Link Link
  • Wisdom (Civic) Council Link
  • Crowdsourcing solutions to engineering or public problems Link
  • Wikipedia Link
  • Participatory Sustainability (book) Link
  • Distributed Cognition  Link
  • Knowledge networks  Link
  • Distributed Intelligence: Transcending the Individual Human Mind Link
  • Open Source Everything Link-book Link-Interview

Distributed intelligence is represented by networks, just in general: all the linked entities contributing their input and participating in whatever the network is about.

Then there’s the global scientific enterprise. Lots of scientific collaborations – I would guess the majority of scientific journal reports – involve multiple people.  We get a sense of people all over the world, people and different institutions being part of the same area of research.

Open Space is a intrinsically distributed intelligence. You have lots of people doing different things, all relating to a shared interest or concern or topic.

Dynamic Facilitation and World Cafe bring those people together in various ways.

And of course Wikipedia.

There is a practice whereby engineering firms will put out an invitation: “Here’s the problem we are trying to solve and whoever comes up with the best solution will get $10,000.” Something like that. And people submit all sorts of solutions and one gets picked by the corporation who then makes millions of dollars on it. But they give their thousands of dollars of reward to whoever came up with the solution. That’s tapping a distributed intelligence.

You could do that with public problems, also. This pattern has many similarities to crowdsourcing. This is the intellectual version of crowdsourcing:  You are crowdsourcing intelligence here rather than, for example, crowdfunding. Crowdsourcing money is different, but this is a particularly important subset of the more general category of crowdsourcing, and I wanted to highlight it with this pattern.