Collective Intelligence

Nearing the end of the millennium year, we witness visions of ubiquitous technology, unparalleled communication linkages and a panorama of virtual spaces dancing like sugar plums in our eyes – sweet, enticing, full of promise. Many familiar things have been transformed into e’s (e-mail, e-money, e-business, even e-democracy) and many inanimate objects have astonishingly become ‘smart’ (smart cards, smart appliances, and smart clothes).

In the emerging e-world, cities such as Ottawa are now global centres, places of pilgrimage for those filled with ‘e-ideas’ and wanting to create ‘smart products’. We even have before us an opportunity to become a ‘Smart Community’ through the OCRI-led efforts of SmartCapital – a unique partnership among civic leaders and community organizations committed to better and smarter living.

Yet, what is a smart community? If you ask any 10 people what they thought a ‘smart community’ was you would receive 10 different

answers. Therefore let me suggest that a Smart Community is just that – a community that acts smartly. It is a community that learns quickly and learns well.

It is notable that this definition lacks a mention of technology. Many things can contribute to a community acting smartly – education, history, competition, to name a few – not just technology. Technology is an enabler, and not necessarily the critical factor. The critical factor in any successful community has to be its people and the way they interact. This is nothing new or earth shattering but it leads to the conclusion that a ‘smart community’ is primarily a geo-political entity having assets, skills, capabilities, a soul, a collective intelligence, and most importantly a capacity to learn.

Learning enables a community to transform itself, to evolve. To facilitate that learning, the community may utilize a variety of available physical, social and behavioural technologies, including, but not limited to, the new information and communication technologies (NICTs). Yet, we need to guard against the temptation of the technologically inclined to ascribe the ‘smartness’ of a community solely to its NICT infrastructure. While a smart community may make extensive use of NICTs to enable more effective linkages among the diverse members of its community, other capacities are required.

It is through social learning and its resultant collective intelligence that a community may harness its intellectual, informational, physical and human resources to produce a continuous flow of innovative and useable knowledge. Social learning is the interactive process by which individuals and organizations learn from each other, adapt, innovate, and consequently develop new arrangements and conventions amongst themselves leading to new rules of behaviour. Collective intelligence refers to the creative and discriminative capacities of a community. Effective social learning increases collective intelligence over time.

This intelligence- cum-learning task tends to create a “geo-centric governance” challenge. In a given geographic space there may be any number of groups that have some degree of resources, power or knowledge enough to influence regional issues. These groups may or may not necessarily share the same world-views or objectives. How then can their interests and efforts be aligned in order to create win-win strategies amongst themselves and progress in the community?

This is the governance challenge – the challenge of optimizing the interactions of diverse interests when resources, power and knowledge are widely distributed.

We have come to know that in a knowledge-based socio-economy, the extensive growth that occurs through additions of human and physical capital is today not sufficient to ensure progress. More people and more money alone do not guarantee an organization’s success. That is why IBM nearly failed a few years ago and why the network style of lean newcomers like Cisco is so highly valued. Networks have a capacity for continuous technical and organizational innovation without the need for large investments in human and physical capital. They tend to generate more effective learning and to tap into a broader spectrum of collective intelligence fostering intensive growth, that is, growth through knowledge and innovation.

However, this intensive growth depends on the development of improved mechanisms of collaboration in network organizations to coordinate the many players. In fact, the inability of many socio-economies to find better ways of collaborating locally to compete globally has been identified by a number of researchers as a major source of their productivity slowdown and the relative decline in their standard of living.

Over a century ago Alfred Marshall suggested that organizational innovation, depended on what he termed “organizational capital.” According to Marshall, organizational capital was not just financial assets, plant and equipment but also included how internal units were co-ordinated. That coordination involved a network of relationships (regional, district, etc.) within which each organizational unit was embedded, the set of capabilities embodied by those relationships, the ways in which the networks worked together, and the technical infrastructure that was available in the com-munity. Thus from Marshall’s perspective, a large part of organizational capital consisted of the knowledge that arose from its infrastructure, rules and social interactions that were integral to the formation of relationships and networks.

For our purpose of understanding and fostering communities that act smartly, we must learn to use this organizational capital to great effect, recognizing that it may well be the most important factor in encouraging organizational effectiveness, community success, national productivity and socio-economic progress. Investments in organizational capital will aid in resolving conflicts that are bound to emerge with distributed power arrangements and multiple accountabilities, while encouraging the sharing of tacit knowledge, stakeholder dialogue and organizational coordination.

In times of rapid change, both problem solving and strategy development tend to be done ‘on the fly’. This is because in the time it takes to assess a problem, invent possible solutions and then negotiate those solutions with community members the ground on which the problem was based may have shifted or entirely new problems may have emerged. Timeliness is not a matter of convenience any more but a matter of survival.

Collective learning requires a context that allows for meaningful conversations to be conducted. Citizens, action groups, and the state all have to rethink their actions in the world of learning economies and smart communities. The collective conversations, deliberations, and accumulation of judgements require a capacity to support and integrate the multiple logics of community members in an atmosphere of tact and civility. This sort of learning does not necessarily result in formalized decision-making and conclusion. It often remains as tacit knowledge a fuzzy, implicit recognition of the local and particular context. This is where the communities of practice have the most impact.

This in turn requires a well-aligned nexus of relations, networks, and regimes, and states can be important catalysts in the construction of the social capital that is required.

We must not forget that learning requires a certain amount of difference, since identical individuals with identical experiences are less likely to extract new insight from one another. However, those differences should not impede the development of interpersonal trust. Community members need to be able to recognize their inherent differences yet remain capable of mutual trust. They must be able to build strong relations from weak ties. Moreover, a smart community cannot be so rigidly defined that it excludes contact with the outside. As we have observed in market organizations, open networks and voluntary collaboration are essential elements for the generation and dissemination of new ideas and effective learning.

This leads us to consider where and when intervention may be appropriate. In a world of knowledge economies, there is a need for some form of intervention to improve education and training systems. Smart communities require improved access to relevant knowledge, by bridging the relationships between agents and sources of knowledge. As a result there must be intervention to improve the incentives to learn.

The problem (or perhaps the opportunity) is that the power to intervene here is spread among many public, private, educational and civic organizations. Consequently, smart communities create a governance challenge. They require a new form of leadership if they are to yield the promised returns of organizational effectiveness, community success, national productivity and socio-economic progress.

Very little of this intervention is dependent on new information and communication technologies. Most intervention appears to be required in the domain of community dynamics, in collaborative partnerships and in non-technical realms that generate intangibles. In the reconstruction of community infrastructure, rules of engagement, and social capital the transformation required is from governance system based on control to a more effective system of learning governance. A more participatory, less technocratic system is required, wherein all sectors share power and accountability.

It should be noted that only some of these interventions are dependent on NICTs, but most of them clearly call for intervention in the dynamics of the community per se, through non-technical means. Indeed, the omnipresence of trust, as a facilitator of interaction, serves as a good illustration of the sort of intangible factor that appears to be at the core of the smart community governance challenge.

Fundamentally, the success of smart communities depends first and foremost on the rules for engaging stakeholders and the terms of agreement for their mutual cooperation.

Gilles Paquet is the Director of The Centre on Governance at The University of Ottawa. He can be reached at