Geoff Mulgan’s idea of Collective Intelligence

Geoff Mulgan (CEO, National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts, or NESTA) delivered this keynote lecture on 26 June 2019 at Tacit Engagement in the Digital Age, a Re- Network conference funded by AI and Society Journal, the Polanyi Society and supported by CRASSH and the Faculty of Music, Cambridge.

As Geoff points out in his lecture, there is bound to always be a tension between how things are represented, and the diversity of lived experience that any form of representation (visual, verbal or digital) attempts to capture. But this problem becomes serious for forms of representation that are encoded, i.e. that consist in standardised forms or patterns of metrics. Representations that formally quantify reality tend to distract attention from the exceptional, the marginal, and the diverse. Whether enshrined in human language, or mathematical data, formal knowledge is necessarily associated with the external powers who chose its categories, language, and purpose. The powerless are particularly ill-served by such conventional frames of knowing, their perspectives often failing to register. The examples Geoff speaks about in this video suggest we need new accommodations between formal and tacit ways of knowing; to look below the surface of data, and to seek to always reconcile the internal (human experience) and external (our narratives about it) – ideas discussed in his 2019 book, Social Innovation: How Societies Find the Power to Change.

‘The time is now,’ Geoff says: ‘existing models no longer apply. Those in power are not governing with policies based on information, so universities need to be proactive in urgently entering public sphere in support of evidence-based decision-making.’

Earlier work on ideas of ‘collective intelligence’ celebrated the idea of combining individual insights with so-called ‘citizen science’ – Wikipedia is the salient example. But more recent work on collective intelligence suggests that what is important is first breaking down what we mean by intelligence: looking at its functional elements: for example, models, observation, creativity, memory, judgement etc. By breaking these down we can assess different intelligences by their usefulness. This makes it easier to see that when these various functional elements are consciously fed into ongoing and collectively-shared cycles of action and learning, and these are combined with formal knowledge, a different type of knowing results: a collective intelligence.

Geoff’s call for action highlights the need to combine formal and informal intelligences, the codified and the tacit, whether in the hospital, classroom or in political decision-making. Tacit knowledge needs to be made patent, so it can be shared, interrogated and combined with other types of knowledge.

Geoff’s talk refracts the events of the year that followed our symposium on Tacit Knowledge, particularly the crisis of faith in democracy emerging across the world, and now of belief in formal science with the COVID pandemic. As Geoff said, presciently, in June 2019, what this new approach to prioritising ‘collective intelligence’ could help lead to is, for example, the development of a thesis about democracy that goes beyond the practical criteria of voting, and takes into account how knowledge intersects with experiences and feelings. Other applications he offered were, for example:

  • -to rethink ideas of skill, and reconsider how people can represent experience and competence in ways very different to the formal definitions of CVs and qualifications, or the thin descriptions and feedback of digital platforms such as LinkedIn; this may help with the discovery of latent potential (this links to the current NESTA programme of work on Open Jobs);
  • -to have more roles involving mutual supervision of machines and expert humans, greater combination of formal data and tacit judgement, and an effort to make human judgement more formal and self-aware;
  • -to encourage a focus on tacit knowledge in innovation.

His talk inspired impassioned pleas afterwards (e.g. by Caroline Nevejan, for university researchers to reach out to their local cities and municipalities to help solve rapid social change caused by the digital era, global warming – and now the pandemic. Think globally and act locally, for sure – but with the emphasis on act. In sum, we all need to put knowledge into practice: or to practice knowledge.

Mulgan, Geoff (2019) Social Innovation: How Societies Find the Power to Change, Bristol University Press

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