Collective Intelligence in the Holocene – 3: transdisciplinary transitions

Collective IntelligenceWhen it comes to the history of science, social scientists are often viewed by worldly, grey-bearded physicists as the new kids on the block – or, at best, a bunch of rowdy adolescents still trying to figure out their purpose in life.

The social science discipline where I first learnt my trade – psychology – is a little over 100 years old. Psychological science is still maturing and, in recent years, has developed the capacity to talk with other sciences.

More generally, as a collective, scientists are slowly maturing beyond the idea that they, and their disciplines, stand alone, separate from their more or less mature colleagues. A growing body of scientists are embracing a more transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and multidisciplinary worldview, all of which basically means they are more willing to work together in teams and share their knowledge and methodological expertise to achieve shared project goals.

Beyond the walls of psychology, the ivory towers of social science, and the ‘closed world’ of science and technology, my learning over the past decade has taken me into the world of collective intelligence – the world beyond the content specialists and experts, beyond the walls and ivory towers, and into world where people live. Over the past decade, I’ve worked to facilitate the collective intelligence of diverse groups of people who have been working to tackle a broad variety of societal, environmental, political, technical, and scientific problems. Over time, I’ve become increasingly interested in group dynamics, a relatively small field of enquiry that exists in the space between a number of disciplines – including sociology, psychology, and politics – and in the everyday spaces where groups strive to work together.

Notwithstanding our recent historical transition into a global and massively interconnected world, where billions of interdependent people have become increasingly aware of their relationships with one another, our transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene has left us with an important evolutionary legacy – the legacy of small groups, and small group dynamics, which continue to be a hugely significant and important part of human existence. Beyond the obvious evolutionary importance of the family unit, when we examine our social world, we quickly discover the power and influence of small groups. Relatively small groups influence and design many aspects of our world – in government, community, school, hospital, workplace settings, and in the many, relatively small science and technology innovation teams that create new artefacts of culture that are rapidly transforming our world.

Beyond the care and support that the family unit can provide, people often recognise the need to come together in a group. They often assign a leader, chair, or facilitator, and try to define a structure that supports the coordination efforts of the group, and sometimes they succeed in doing good work together. Other times, group dynamics fail to support collective intelligence, and group work can, and has, resulted in many a terrible mess or bloody disaster.

Small groups shape the design of our world in countless ways, and small groups are often interconnected in complex ways that shape and influence the broader landscape of our organisational and social world. However, if you look closely, you will notice a tendency to focus more scientific attention on the individual (i.e., in the field of psychology) and the larger population dynamics (i.e., in the fields of sociology and politics) and our knowledge of small groups and how to maximize the collective intelligence of small groups is less well developed. Although the academic field of small group dynamics is miniscule in relation to the vast and massively funded fields of psychology and sociology and politics, small groups are hugely influential in shaping our world. For example, most governments are run ‘at the top’ by small group executive teams, with multiple small groups – committees, commissions, task forces, etc. – providing input to the executive for high level decisions, while also shaping specific policies within their own sphere of influence. The schools that educate our children, and the hospitals that care for us, are similarly run by small groups working in different configurations to deliver their service. But how often do you hear reports in the media on initiatives and efforts to support and facilitate the collective intelligence of government executive teams, school administrators, hospital staff, and so on?  Not very often, and this seems surprising given the evolutionary significance of small groups. At the same time, our ability to synthesise the intelligence of multiple interacting groups is less well developed than it should be.

I think we can do better. I believe we can enhance our capacity for collective intelligence into the future. I believe that groups, and more specifically high functioning teams, can achieve more than any individual can achieve alone. Multiple interacting teams can achieve even more again. I believe we can learn from our past experience, work to solve problems collectively, and facilitate our hoped-for futures by changing our approach to the design of our world. This implies a new approach to collective intelligence design – a paradigm shift in the way we design our world together. This book will take us deep into this world, and showcase the emerging possibilities for collective intelligence in the Holocene based on the evidence, case studies, and applications I will describe. Embracing collective intelligence means embracing a new adventure along a new and uncertain path. I hope you enjoy the adventure.

© Michael Hogan

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s