Cultivating Society’s Civic Intelligence

Governments, companies, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are figuring out how to engage citizens in “civic problem solving”.  The aim is to derive beneficial strategies, tactics and paradigms that might ameliorate the threats facing the planet and future generations. According to Doug Schuler of the Public Sphere Project, this involves “civic intelligence”, which is a means of bettering society as a whole through interaction, learning, and maintaining knowledge about the world and our place within it.

Doug Schuler’s paper, Cultivating Society’s Civic Intelligence presents patterns for implementing a “World Brain” — an idea originally coined by H.G. Wells long before the internet. The paper begins with the thoughts of computing pioneer Bill Joy, taken from an issue of Wired Magazine (2000). In the magazine article he discusses “apocalyptic scenarios” which could be unleashed in the not-too-distant future.  In addition to the common threats of environmental disasters, nuclear, and bacteriological warfare, he reminds us of issues stemming from genetic engineering, nanotechnology and robotics (GNR).  He’s concerned about human extinction and that humankind is outstripping its ability to control technological development.

Schuler tells us that civic intelligence might play a useful role in reducing these risks. He refers us to H.G. Wells’ potential solution, “a world encyclopedia” that would be so accurate that people would make the right collective decisions based on diligent study of the facts. For Wells this would be a better solution that ideologies and religions, which he considered unsuitable antidotes.

Schuler tells us that democracy itself is “an impossible task” which may be based on his concern that the world is “unfathomly complex”. Yet he sees intelligence playing a role as “an orderly process for assessing situations, ranging over possible responses and determining and enacting appropriate actions.” He adds that intelligence also implies “looking into the future insofar as that is possible, and making decisions in the present that will help make future situations advantageous at best, tractable at worst.” He tells us civic intelligence is a prosaic means for humankind to engage in “collective problem-solving” and so proposes the patterns that might help us design something akin to the World Brain.

  1. Orientation describes the purpose, principles and perspectives that help energize an effective deployment of civic intelligence.
  2. Organization refers to the structures, methods and roles by which people engage in civic intelligence.
  3. Engagement refers to the ways in which civic intelligence is an active force for thought, action, and social change.
  4. Intelligence refers to the ways that civic intelligence lives up to its name.
  5. Products and Projects refer to some of the outcomes, both long-term and incremental, that civic intelligence might produce.
  6. Resources refers to the types of support that people and institutions engaged in civic intelligence work need.

Schuler proposed a complementary model in 2001 (described in more detail here) of civic intelligence that depicts its primary functional processes. This model (or framework) is an amalgam of concepts from social change theory and models of education and human learning. The model’s three main components are the environment (everything relevant outside the organization); the mental model (the core sum of people and their knowledge resource); and the interactive processes under the control of the organization that link the environment and mental model. There are eight types of interactive processes involved in a group’s civic intelligence:

  1. Monitoring How the organization acquires new relevant information nonintrusively.
  2. Discussion and deliberation How organizations discuss issues and determine common agendas, ‘‘issue frames’’ ( Keck and Sikkink 1998), and action plans with other organizations. The mental model of any participants or the organization itself can change as a result of the interactions.
  3. Engagement How the organization attempts to make changes through varying degrees of cooperation and combativeness.
  4. Resource transfer How noninformational resources like volunteers and money are acquired from the environment.
  5. Interpretation of new information How new information is considered and how it ultimately becomes (or does not become) part of the core. New information can also include information about the organization.
  6. Maintenance of mental model (includes resource management) How the organization maintains its organizational integrity by consciously and unconsciously resisting change over time.
  7. Planning and plan execution How a campaign is initiated, carried out, and monitored.
  8. Modification of mental model How the core itself is scrutinized by participants in the organization and modified. Another term for this is organizational learning.

Schuler recommends the development of surveys and other diagnostic tools to evaluate actions and develop plans. He also suggests that other important uses of this civic intelligence are metacognition: “examining and evaluating how the processes are used within an organization and changing them as necessary.”

More on Doug Schuler

[Summary compiled 30Sept12]

Cultivating Society’s Civic Intelligence

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