By Amalio Rey
In order for there to be “collective intelligence,” two conditions must be met: First, Interaction: people interacting with each other, second, Aggregation: some mechanism to convert individual contributions into a collective point of view or behaviour. The former allows to flourish, thanks to synergies, capabilities that transcend individuals, while the latter packs these disperse capabilities into a collective result or point of view.
When there are interactions between individuals, there are almost always latent synergies that dissipate and that we don’t take advantage of. Good “mechanisms of aggregation” seek precisely to capture the best of these many interpersonal connections and give them meaning in an aggregate result. Understood in this way, it’s possible to arrive at a definition of “collective intelligence” as:
The ability to reason, learn, create, resolve problems, and make decisions in a group.
Maybe those who were hoping for a definition with more normative weight will find this one somewhat weak. It’s also clear to me that some would prefer to define CI in terms that are more committed to the communal ideal. Nevertheless, defining it in a more neutral way is a deliberate choice, so that the framework is flexible and can be applied to a great variety of situations, independent from whether someone wants to emphasize one type of collective intelligence or another.
Below, I’ll better explain the definition, going into detail that will help you understand what it means:
It’s intelligent, because it manifests as the ability to reason, learn, create, resolve problems, or make decisions. There will be people who say that an explicit mention of the emotional aspect is lacking. I’m aware that intelligence goes beyond the rational, but in order to simplify, I prefer to focus on the predisposition to better think and act, considering emotion as an ingredient that contributes to this.
It’s collective, because these manifestations of intelligence happen in a group, they’re social, thanks to the interaction between many individual intelligences.
It implicates synergies because these interactions provoke, in principle, an added effect that wouldn’t exist if individuals acted in isolation or if there were no mechanism to connect their contributions. From these synergies, something distinct from individual intelligences, something possibly better, emerges. So a key to a well designed CI system is to conceive of an architecture of interaction that takes maximum advantage of the latent synergies in any group, which brings us to the next point.
It’s aggregation, because it needs a mechanism to convert a bunch of individual opinions, preferences, and actions into some collective result. Aggregation by itself doesn’t presuppose collective intelligence (as in the case of the aggregation of data generated by isolated individuals that don’t act as a group), but collective intelligence requires some kind of aggregation to be expressed. One can rightly claim that intelligence in a group operates in a distributed way, and that it can remain in its latent form, but if one wants to translate it into a collective action, it needs to be aggregated in some way. Of course, it’s important to warn that “aggregation” doesn’t mean (as the word might suggest) the mere sum of elements, rather it also covers other, more complex ways of combining individual contributions. Aggregation consists of some method, whatever it be, that combines these contributions in order to convert them into a collective behaviour or decisions.
It’s an emergent property, because new things arise from the interaction between and/or aggregation of individual contributions. This intelligence cannot reside in a person, not even in a group, rather it surfaces. The more different the group result is when compared to the individual contribution, the more evidence there is that the collective oven cooks something distinct and according to its own rules. In this way, new properties will “emerge” in the aggregate result that are not reducible to the individuals that form it. That’s what makes collective intelligence such an intriguing phenomenon.
It’s a skill that must be developed, because, although collective processes have a component that is unpredictable and a notable variability in their results, it’s a skill that can be improved. That means that a group, of a stable composition in a certain time, can learn to be more collectively intelligent. It will experience moments of great inspiration and other moments in which the results will be more mediocre, but if attention is given to the process and guidelines are followed to improve it, there will develop abilities that allow it to reach a more intelligent behavior.