Friday, January 6, 2017

Collective Intelligence, Civic Intelligence, and Pattern Languages

Preface to a book by the Seminario Visiones sobre las Mediaciones Tecnológicas de la Educación group at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM)

I rely on collective intelligence, civic intelligence, and pattern languages in my everyday and professional life. Beyond that those approaches represent important opportunities that can help us as we attempt to dig ourselves out of the quagmire we've created for ourselves. Although it took awhile to identify them and put them to use, these concepts have served me well: they have helped me to inform and shape my teaching with a perspective and practice that I believe is useful, rich, and empowering. And they have helped me make some sense of the world and see possibilities for improving it.My working hypothesis is that one of the most significant problems we face is that our inability to face significant problems. Our tools do not seem to be adequate for the task. We do not have the right paradigms, theories, or vocabulary to think about this problem holistically. We do not have the adequate facilities to collectively recognize problems, understand them, and mobilize to circumvent them. This is the issue that I have chosen to focus on: what should we do to develop the civic intelligence that we need for life in the 21st century? Focusing on this issue has helped open up new questions, avenues, and opportunities that led to understandings that would not have been revealed without that focus.

Collective Intelligence

To understand collective and civic intelligence, it makes sense to first establish a definition of intelligence in general: An integrated set of processes that enable an agent to act in ways that are appropriate to the agent's goals and to the environment that it perceives and acts within — particularly areas that present actual or potential challenges or opportunities. I use that definition of intelligence because it helps us see the phenomenon in a way that is consistent with science. It also highlights the idea that intelligence is a dynamic and flexible process (or, more accurately, a set of processes), not a phenomenon that simply exists, or is a characteristic that can be summed up using a simple numeric value.

Collective intelligence (sometimes called distributed intelligence) places the focus on the fact that groups of people—not only individuals—employ and exhibit intelligence. Collective intelligence puts a name on this extremely important phenomenon. After all, as Roy Pea (1993) points out, "Anyone who has closely observed the practices of cognition is struck with the fact that the ‘mind” never works alone. The intelligences revealed through these practices are distributed – across minds, persons, and the symbolic and physical environments, both natural and artificial."

A simple example: I used to work at Boeing, a corporation that designs and builds airplanes (and other things too). At fairly regular intervals the corporation determines that it needs to think about their next airplane. A small group of people would sketch out a concept for an airplane that did not yet exist— how many miles could it would fly without refueling, how many seats it would have, what type of fuel economy would it have, etc. — and a few years later one would actually fly, generally followed by a lot more. This achievement involves an integrated set of processes involving tens of thousands of people; the collective perceived its environment, marshaled resources, successfully coordinated its activities, and learned important information throughout the process. Clearly it acts as an intelligent agent. A bunch of uncoordinated people could not design and build a modern airplane. And while we do talk about the intelligence of individuals, in reality it is nearly impossible to think of a person's intelligence (which is not what's measured by IQ tests) as being separate from other people.

Our complex circumstances force us to think more seriously about our collective intelligence. There are two primary reasons: The first is that because collective intelligence defines the social reality that we live within; the second is because we absolutely depend on it. Collective intelligence is a requirement for survival but not just any type of collective intelligence.

Civic Intelligence

Civic intelligence can be thought of as a type of collective intelligence but the two are not identical. Civic intelligence describes what happens when people work together to address significant shared problems equitably as well as efficiently. It is not about solving puzzles with clearly defined solutions. We use the term "equitably" because that is what is appropriate for this type of intelligence. It makes no sense to consider intelligence as it is enacted in the social world as a purely "rational" exercise that takes place in the absence of values, justice, respect, and other important features that are inherent in human civilization. Civic intelligence also differs from collective intelligence because of the essential role of action in civic intelligence. Civic Intelligence raises the critical question: Is society smart enough to meet the challenges it faces? 

Civic Intelligence describes how well groups of people address civic ends through civic means. As such it is an indispensable perspective for social and environmental progress. It is also important to note that civic intelligence takes different forms at different scales. It can exist at the global level—the climate talks in Paris in 2015, for example—and it can exist within groups, communities, a nation, or, even, a single individual. Civic intelligence requires learning and teaching. In my ongoing Civic Intelligence Research and Action Laboratory at Evergreen students work together to use and promote civic intelligence through "real world" projects. It seems that practicing civic intelligence is one of the best ways to learn about it.

If civic intelligence is what we need then why do not we face it directly and explicitly? Curiously many explorations in collective intelligence disallow conscious thought or agency from the phenomenon. In other words, bees or ants, Or even slime molds can exhibit collective intelligence while humans, who are able to consciously reflect on their thinking (metacognition) and even change it if they want—are not worthy of consideration. 

Pattern Languages

Intelligence is a product of co-adaptation to the environment in which it exists. The more factors in the environment that an agent must attend to, the more complex the intelligence must be. In other words, the intelligence – the set of processes– reflects its environment to a large degree. Pattern languages are designed to account for the complexity of the world that we live in by providing comprehensible components of our collective ”reality,” the features in the environment that are important to us. Pattern languages can help put us in a better position to think and act without losing sight of the broader environment. Hence, they can be seen as tools for advancing civic intelligence.

But what exactly is a pattern language? The concept was introduced in the 1970s through a revolutionary book about the built environment called A Pattern Language (Alexander et al, 1977). The book included 253 patterns that could help people build rooms, houses, buildings, and towns that were more beautiful and life-affirming. Each pattern describes a relationship between people and the built environment that would help them solve a problem that was a result of the built environment. The idea was to provide patterns that people could use to play a stronger role in the design of the physical environment in which they live. 

What's a pattern? In general, a pattern is something that repeats.  We generally think about visual patterns when we think about patterns. The specific kind of patterns that Alexander refers to are generalizations of ways in which people have historically addressed problems over time. A pattern can be thought of as a seed for thinking. It does not tell you what to think or do, but it can help you and the people you are working with to identify useful opportunities. A pattern contains a description of a current situation that needs to change. It also contains a vision of a more desirable future, one that using the pattern can help create. Alexander expressed it this way: “Each pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice.”

A pattern language is simply an organized collection of patterns. The patterns in a pattern language work together to provide a wide range of ideas that people can use — and have used — to help them address the problems that they'd like to address. Pattern languages provide a framework for integrating disparate but interdependent ideas together. I promote and use pattern languages because they are useful for representing the complexity of the challenges we face and help us consider actions. They are intended to be useful in diagnosis and prescription and to provide a common language. 
Working with a group of 85 other contributors we developed the Liberating Voices pattern language that contained 136 patterns*, such as Voices of the Unheard, Activist Road Trip, and Strategic Frame. They provide ideas for shifting out of the often dominant trends that sustain inequality and environmental degradation. That work culminated in a book (Schuler 2008) containing patterns for working toward positive goals through a focus on information and communication. Ideally people and groups can use these patterns to turn their ideas and aspirations into actions for positive social change. The hope is that the patterns can empower people to help create a future that is inclusive, healthy, respectful, and more equitable. 

Moving Forward 

The problems we face are incredibly complex and interconnected. Hoping that they will melt away without collective, cross-border imagination and hard work is not a reasonable strategy. Embracing civic intelligence as a perspective can help motivate and inform the next generation of collaborative problem-solving. Civic intelligence and the pattern language approach will of course not answer all of our problems. The hope is, however, that they can help us reformulate the nature of the collaborative approach we need to address these problems more effectively. With the civic intelligence perspective and with innovative approaches such as the pattern languages we can develop new cooperative research and action projects, especially across boundaries that are essential in our quest for a better life for the earth's inhabitants.

* All of the patterns in Liberating Voices are available online in English ( Short versions of the patterns are available online and in physical cards that can be used in face-to-face workshops. These short "card" versions are now available online in five languages in addition to English: Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, and Vietnamese. On another note, several years after the book was published my students and I developed a set of 40 anti-patterns. This exploration into the "dark side" helped document ways in which oppressive forces work toward negative goals (Schuler and Wagaman 2013) and somewhat ironically was a positive experience for all of us.


Alexander, C. (1977). A Pattern Language: towns, buildings, construction. New York: Oxford University Press.
Alexander, C. (1979). The timeless way of building. New York: Oxford University Press.
Pea, R. D. (1993). Practices of distributed intelligence and designs for education. Distributed cognitions: Psychological and educational considerations, 11.
Schuler, D. (2001). Cultivating Society's Civic Intelligence: Patterns for a New "World Brain", Journal of Society, Information and Communication, Vol 4 No. 2
Schuler, D. (2008). Liberating Voices: A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution. MIT Press.

Schuler, D., and Wagaman, J. The Surprising Power, Vitality, and Potentiality of Examining the “Dark Side:" The Collaborative Production of the Restraining Voices Anti-Pattern Language in an Educational Setting. In Fall 2013 International PUARL Conference: Generative Processes, Patterns and the Urban Challenge. Neis H. (ed.). PUARL Press, Portland, OR, 2013. 

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