March 30, 2019

Collective Intelligence


In recent years a new field of collective intelligence has emerged, prompted by a wave of digital…

Avatar: Tesfaye Demissie
By Tesfaye Demissie

Collective Intelligence

In recent years a new field of collective intelligence has emerged, prompted by a wave of digital technologies that make it possible for organisations and societies to think at a large scale. This new development - human and machine capabilities working together - has the potential to solve the great challenges of our time. Although this can be enriched through gathering insights from diverse fields, this note will skim over and discuss how collective intelligence can guide societies to make the most of human brains and digital technologies.

The fourth industrial revolution may be driving disruption, but the challenges it presents are of our own making. Please refer to the article “Digital disruption” for more on industrial revolution. It is thus in our power to address them and enact the changes and policies needed to adapt (and flourish) in our emerging new environment. We can only meaningfully address these challenges if we mobilise the collective wisdom of our minds, hearts and souls. To do so, I believe we must adapt, shape and harness the potential of disruption by nurturing and applying four different types of intelligence:

  • contextual (the mind) - how we understand andapply our knowledge
  • emotional (the heart) - how we process andintegrate our thoughts and feelings and relate to ourselves and to one another
  • inspired (the soul) - how we use a sense ofindividual and shared purpose, trust, and other virtues to effect change andact towards the common good
  • physical (the body) - how we cultivate andmaintain our personal health and well-being and that of those around us to bein a position to apply the energy required for both individual and systemstransformation

Contextual intelligence - the mind

Goodleaders understand and master contextual intelligence. A sense of context isdefined as the ability and willingness to anticipate emerging trends andconnect the dots. These have been common characteristics of effectiveleadership across generations and, in the fourth industrial revolution, theyare a prerequisite for adaptation and survival. To develop contextualintelligence, decision-makers must first understand the value of diversenetworks. They can only confront significant levels of disruption if they arehighly connected and well networked across traditional boundaries.Decision-makers must possess a capacity and readiness to engage with all thosewho have a stake in the issue at hand. In this way, we should aspire to be moreconnected and inclusive. It is only by bringing together and working in collaborationwith leaders from business, government, civil society, faith, academia and theyoung generation that it becomes possible to obtain a holistic perspective ofwhat is going on. In addition, this is critical to develop and implementintegrated ideas and solutions that will result in sustainable change. This isthe principle embedded in the multi-stakeholder theory. Boundaries betweensectors and professions are artificial and are proving to be increasinglycounterproductive. More than ever, it is essential to dissolve these barriersby engaging the power of networks to forge effective partnerships. Companiesand organizations that fail to do this and do not walk the talk by buildingdiverse teams will have a difficult time adjusting to the disruptions of thedigital age. Leaders must also prove capable of changing their mental andconceptual frameworks and their organising principles. In today’s disruptive,fast changing world, thinking in silos and having a fixed view of the future isfossilizing, which is why it is better, in the dichotomy presented by thephilosopher Isaiah Berlin in his essay about writers and thinkers, to be a foxthan a hedgehog. Operating in an increasingly complex and disruptiveenvironment requires the intellectual and social agility of the fox rather thanfixed and narrow focus of the hedgehog. In practical terms, this means thatleaders cannot afford to think in silos. Their approach to problems, issues andchallenges must be holistic, flexible and adaptive, continuously integratingmany diverse interests and opinions.

Emotional intelligence - the heart

Asa complement to, not a substitute for, contextual intelligence, emotionalintelligence is an increasingly essential attribute in the fourth industrialrevolution. As management psychologist David Caruso of the Yale Center forEmotional Intelligence has stated, it should not be seen as the opposite ofrational intelligence or “the triumph of heart over head - it is the uniqueintersection of both.” In academic literature, emotional intelligence iscredited with allowing leaders to be more innovative and enabling them to beagents of change. For business leaders and policymakers, emotional intelligenceis the vital foundation for skills critical to succeed in the era of the fourthindustrial revolution, namely self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation,empathy and social skills. Academics who specialize in the study of emotionalintelligence show that great decision-makers are differentiated from averageones by their level of emotional intelligence and capacity to cultivate thisquality continuously. In a world characterized by persistent and intensechange, institutions rich in leaders with high emotional intelligence will notonly be more creative but will also be better equipped to be more agile andresilient - an essential trait for coping with disruption. The digital mindset,capable of institutionalizing cross-functional collaboration, flatteninghierarchies, and building environments that encourage a generation of new ideasis profoundly dependent on emotional intelligence.

Inspired intelligence - the soul

Alongsidecontextual and emotional intelligence, there is a third critical component foreffectively navigating the fourth industrial revolution. It is what can becalled inspired intelligence. Drawing from the Latin spirare, to breathe,inspired intelligence is about the continuous search for meaning and purpose.It focuses on nourishing the creative impulse and lifting humanity to a newcollective and moral consciousness based on a shared sense of destiny. Sharingis the key idea here. As it is mentioned previously, if technology is one ofthe possible reasons why we are moving towards a me-centred society, it is anabsolute necessity that we rebalance this trend towards a focus on the selfwith a pervasive sense of common purpose. We are all in this together and riskbeing unable to tackle the challenges of the fourth industrial revolution andreap the full benefits of the fourth industrial revolution unless we collectivelydevelop a sense of shared purpose. To do this, trust is essential. A high levelof trust favours engagement and teamwork, and this is made all more acute inthe fourth industrial revolution, where collaborative innovation is at thecore. This process can only take place if it is nurtured in an environment oftrust because there are so many different constituents and issues involved.Ultimately, all stakeholders have a role in ensuring that innovation isdirected to the common good. If any major group of stakeholders feels that thisis not the case, trust will be eroded. In a world where nothing is constantanymore, trust becomes one of the most valuable attributes. Trust can only beearned and maintained if decision makers are embedded within a community, andtaking decisions always in the common interest and not in pursuit of individualobjectives.

Physical intelligence - the body

Contextual,emotional and inspired intelligence are all essential attributes for copingwith, and benefitting from, the fourth industrial revolution. They will,however, require the vital support of a fourth form of intelligence - thephysical one, which involves supporting and nourishing personal health andwell-being. This is critical because as the pace of change accelerates, ascomplexity increases, and as the number of players involved in ourdecision-making processes increases, the need to keep fit and remain calm underpressure becomes more essential. Epigenetics, a field of biology that hasflourished in recent years, is the process through which the environmentmodifies the expression of our genes. It shows incontrovertibly the criticalimportance of sleep, nutrition and exercise in our lives. Regular exercise, forexample, has a positive impact on the way we think and feel. It directlyaffects our performance at work and ultimately, our ability to succeed.Understanding and grasping new ways of keeping our physical bodies in harmonywith our mind, our emotions, and the world at-large is incredibly important,and we are learning more about this through the incredible advances being madein numerous areas, including medical sciences, wearable devices, implantabletechnologies and brain research. In addition, a leader requires “good nerves”to address effectively the many simultaneous and complex challenges that we arefacing. This will be increasingly critical in order to navigate and harness theopportunities of the fourth industrial revolution.