Democracy can be smarter and more resilient with Collective Intelligence

Democracy is underutilizing its most powerful resource: the collective intelligence of its citizens.

Democracy is under threat: polarization corrodes it from within, and non democratic regimes batters it from outside. Indexes show the health of democracy has been declining everywhere. In reaction, democratic innovators are seeking to deploy new forms of governance.

Using Collective Intelligence the right way means greater inclusivity, increased cognitive diversity (and therefore less blind spots), better methods to collaborate with various stakeholders, and combine and make sense of their inputs and preferences.

The COVID-19 pandemic and each crisis that comes highlights the importance of improving governments’ ability to think, act, and learn and make the most of Collective Intelligence. This is a vital meta-task for our times.

Collective Intelligence has the potential to renew democracy:

Government as a shared brain

Improving government's ability to think, act and learn, and make the most of collective intelligence in all its forms is probably the greatest meta-task of our times.

Building on decades of experience in government and academia, Prof. Geoff Mulgan is without doubt one of the people in the world who combines the most knowledge and know how at the intersection of collective intelligence and governance.

For Prof. Geoff Mulgan, you should think of government as a shared brain, that perceives, comes up with solutions, decides and learns. 

Collective intelligence doesn’t mean the end of traditional, top-down structures. In fact, government is “the most powerful, and sometimes dangerous, tool available for any society to harness its Collective Intelligence, solve problems and prepare for the future.”

Yet, Collective Intelligence has long been a blind spot for governments, while experts in CI have long ignored governmental matters. So we don’t yet know much about how a government thinks. Although, clearly, “Improving [government’s] ability to think, act and learn, and make the most of collective intelligence in all its forms is probably the greatest meta-task of our times.”

The metaphor of government as a brain is helpful to identify the functions and methods required to make it smarter, considering that governments are in fact highly distributed entities involving many brains, artifacts and communities of actors.

Like other forms of intelligence and systems of cognition, CI for government involves six core functions of intelligence: observation, making sense of those observations thanks to mental models, creativity, memory, empathy, judgment and wisdom.

Looking at government through the lens of those functions allows us to identify many ways in which to make them smarter in their “struggle not to be deceived, diverted and deluded.”

By looking at government from this cognitive perspective, we can ask ourselves four key questions to nurture governments’ IQ:

How open to outside input are governments ? Applying collective intelligence methods to the practical work of government can make them more open and engaged by increasing the amount of information, insights, and external ideas.


How do they connect different pieces of information, link different observations and data sets? Central to the added value of CI is the ability to connect multiple ways of thinking (such as statistics and data) in real-time.

How do they organize feedback, learn and gather evidence to allocate resources and set policy priorities?

How can we help governments to mobilize CI for better strategy making ?

Thinking of government as a brain also allows us to reconsider the power dynamics around the intelligence gathered and cultivated by governments. Jeremy Heimans, founder of the petition platform Avaaz has also emphasized how we have moved on from an old notion of power (and, for Geoff Mulgan, intelligence) that is comparable to a pile of money that is hoarded by a few people, to a new approach to power / intelligence that can be seen as a flow, which can be encouraged, channeled, and that benefits from being shared.

Collective Intelligence and change in government

We arguably have never been as well equipped as we are today with the knowledge, know-how, data, tools and technologies to make sense of the world’s complexity.

How could democratic governments be re-organized to make the most of citizens’ ideas and expertise? And why is collective intelligence necessary yet hard to implement in public decision-making? These are the key questions that Stephen Boucher raises in this introductory chapter. 

Democracy and collective intelligence should be a natural match in theory, as democracy’s goal could be argued to be to produce Pareto-optimal decisions that meet the needs of the maximum number of citizens. 

Fostering collective intelligence in public administration requires enhanced cooperation, coordination, and problem-solving skills, but in practice there has been a decline in citizen participation in civic processes, limited sociological diversity in policy making circles, and limited quality information, substantive balance, and diversity in political discourse.

The six functional capabilities of intelligence pose challenges in government decision making, including the ability to observe, make sense of information, be creative, have memory, empathy, and form wise judgments. 

The challenge of CI in government is caused by the inherent conflictual nature of politics. This is rendered even harder as governments are dealing with complex public problems in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA). And by the fact that governments tend to focus too much internally, retain power, face information overload, and lack holistic thinking abilities. 

Yet, a variety of CI-based methods are being developed to make government smarter. The toolbox for policymakers to foster CI is expanding quickly.

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