Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Promise of Collective Intelligence

I've been involved with a group of thinkers called Overlap who annually organizes a conference of just 50 individuals. When we gather we like to sit in a large circle so that the lines of communication can be readily drawn between all participants. We believe this to be better than the more traditional "one-to-many" method of communication when someone stands at a podium and delivers to a listening crowd. At the end of each of our conferences some of us wonder whether we have accomplished anything beyond encouraging a sense of community through stimulating conversations. Most of us believe that even this is enough to consider our gatherings to be a success.

Even with the circular seating arrangement and openly democratic structure of discussions we inevitably find that there will often be an imbalance of input between various participants. The conversation is usually steered by a handful of the bolder participants. We just accept this to be an inevitable imperfection of human interaction. Beyond the circular seating arrangement I find it ironic that Overlap gatherings are very minimally designed given their attendance and organization by some very gifted designers.

Buckminster Fuller discovered that in order to build the most efficient structures he needed to mimic nature's design tendencies. Nature tends to organize matter in a way that optimally balances the tensions within structures. This is how he came upon the geodesic dome as an example of maximum strength made with minimal materials and surface area. Tensegrity is the name given to this optimal balancing of tensions.

I recently went to a talk at the Rotman School of Management. The speaker from Syntegrity Group was describing how their consultancy uses the structure of the icosahedron to help their clients reach goals and solve problems. They claim to be able to overcome the imbalances of human groups by mimicking the perfection of Platonic solids. They employ a system of collaboration that allows a complex web of stakeholders to work together in the most efficient way possible. They start with 30 people and identify the twelve most important questions or goals to address.

Each person is assigned one of the 30 line edges on the solid. There are 12 vertices where 5 people meet to address one of the twelve issues. Without getting too deep into the process the thinking is that mimicking the ideal way in which the lines are organized in an icosahedron will allow us to get closer to perfection when organizing how people can meet, talk and work out the issues at hand. It's interesting to note that many viruses occur naturally in the shape of an icosahedron as it is the most efficient way of organizing identical repeated proteins.

Naturally I wondered if we shouldn't apply the Syntegrity structure to our Overlap gatherings so that our collection of gifted participants could start to tackle real world problems but I couldn't help wondering if it could also be applied to personal therapy. What if I was to gather a group of 30 or so people from my life; family, friends, people I've dated, hated or worked with. Maybe we could finally find a purpose for my life.


A Sage said...

Jake, the only person who will find purpose for your life is you. Not a circle of tossers, nor a circle of your family. It strikes me that the obstacle to your purpose is indulgence. Purpose will not emerge if the only place you look is desire and want.

JakeJakob said...

I think getting the direct involvement of people close to you would be an invaluable reflection to employ.

I've always tried to keep my indulgence in check. I'm actually quite austere... really. I should probably learn to let go and indulge more often.

kerrjac said...

Platonic solids are definitely some form of perfection. But it seems like they'd be hard to use for organizational meetings. For many reasons, human perceptions of the world don't match the structure of the world.

For example, our short-term memory can generally hold 7-9 bits of information. So say you're teaching students a bunch of new scientific terms or concepts. It'll help them if you classify the info along a hierarchy. Levels with 2-4 groups are intuitive to grasp. Those with 5-9 can easily be remembered. Levels with +10 or 11 are just too difficult.

There's also a question of causality - just because solids arise out of natural formations doesn't mean that formations can be artificially applied to other areas of life. Maybe it's similar to evolution - it explains so much, but it can't actively be applied with predictable results.

As for life, life is ambiguous.

JakeJakob said...

@kerrjac: I share your skepticism. Sometimes such structural parallels are only inexact seductive isomorphisms. But that is a criticism of any metaphor.

In this case I think it actually works to limit the bits of information that the participant deals with at any given time within the process. The meetings involve no more than 5 active participants dealing with one question at a time. There are a small handful of observers and an outside note-taker.

I think it could work simply because it gives the possibility of starting and finishing with questions within a large group of stakeholders that might seem otherwise too daunting or overwhelming to deal with.

kerrjac said...

I see your point.

Sometimes tho any structure is good just b/c it's structure.

Principles of the Socratic seminar/dialogue might help as well. When it comes to ideals, I've often seen that as the ideal for discussing the world, mining meaning, etc. It can take a while for it click for some people tho. & to some degree its principles can be laied ontop yours.