Collective Intelligence PhD

Chalk on black paper drawing
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My current labour of love…. my PhD on Collective Intelligence funded by the Economic and Social Research Council of the UK:


Brexit, Trump’s rise to power and developments in Catalonia show a matrix of desires around self-governance, independence, sovereignty and populism (Moffitt, 2020). These desires interact with the pros and cons of digital life, creating issues of urgent public interest, inspiring hope as well as fear. The duration of my PhD research has spanned the evolution of these events, and I believe “collective intelligence” theory and practice is useful in analysing both current events as well as options going forward.

Bridge Between Context and Research

I believe the way “collective intelligence” is enacted in the participation work of Barcelona City Council (the site of my PhD fieldwork) and related “technopolitical” researcher-activist networks, can help us unpack what self-governance looks like in a combined online-offline world. In particular, how self-governance can be freshly re-imagined in a more practice-based way as a form of collective intelligence. And how it can be deconstructed into components of political participation, sovereignties, self-organisation, authorship and technologies. All of which helps specify and distinguish between political discourses and practical options going forward. In the words of Xabier Barandiaran, the co-founder of Barcelona City’s participatory democracy platform Decidim [“We Decide” in Catalan; Decidim, 2019], remembering that Catalonia has also been through an independence referendum recently:

Here we have to talk about sovereignties in plural because if not, the debate only centres on territorial identity. The nation-state-centred-sovereignty debate in a globalised world is quite empty and sterile … what use is a sovereign country if the people then cannot decide how to transform their city or if democracy stops when the establishment is affected?
(Barandiaran, 2018)

Research Fieldwork

In order to examine how Collective Intelligence is conceived as an idea, and applied in practice, fieldwork was designed in two stages. First, there was a pilot study in Mexico City which learnt from social mobilisations following the disappearance of 43 students in the hands of the police (2014). Here “Tecnopolítica” researcher-activist networks were first encountered. In 2018, the principal fieldwork was carried out with the Decidim online-offline participatory democracy platform of the City of Barcelona, a fruit of technopolitical networks and practices.


The primary medium for fieldwork was video, within a quasi-participatory video approach. I am currently working through the fieldwork material, and integrating research ethics into a consensual editing process, creating the building blocks for the eventual PhD thesis which will include audio-visual pieces as well as the written word. Analytically, I am now focused on establishing an ontological framework, working with audio-visual aspects of ontology such as sound and movement, cross-referencing with a set of literature, some of which is authored by academics who are also actors in Decidim (Tecnopolitica, 2019). Linking with self-organised learning communities online (which are themselves examples of collective intelligence), I am attempting to teach myself Gephi (a network visualisation programme) and Nvivo (a qualitative research tool) to make the analysis more precise (Gephi, 2019; Nvivo, 2019).

Conceptual Framework

I settled on “collective intelligence” as the central concept for my PhD as it was the most tangible, evocative and commonly used idea in the set of concepts and theories I had been exploring for many years. I had started with more of a focus on distributed knowledge, decentralised action and emergence, investigating parallels between online life and social movement ways of being, including parallels between artificial intelligence and social movement knowledge, and the double-sidedness of terms like “open” which can mean both being ‘open to connecting with others’, and also ‘open to exploitation and attack’. However, this set of ideas could easily become very abstract despite the fact that “decentralised modalities” were becoming ever more noticeable, from the blockchains in cryptocurrencies, to autonomous affinity group activist strategies, to assembly decision making in public squares, to increasingly ubiquitous social media.

“Collective intelligence” is a way of understanding decentralised systems and emergence, which speaks to both human-centred collectivity as well as the artificial intelligence shaping online and offline life. It is a much more accessible idea than many of the other terms in the area, giving readers a more familiar entry point into the research, and I am systematising the wider set of concepts into a navigable form which may be structured as a map, interactive hypertext and/or a thesaurus. Some of the more familiar “collective intelligence” ideas are outlined in the following paragraph, which I have selected to show how the PhD project may be connected to ideas, experiences and commitments which you are already engaged in (Beck, 2018; Daily Mail Comment, 2018; Halpin, 2012; Marx, 1939; Mouffe, 2013; Nagle, 2017; Notes From Nowhere, 2003; Reddit, 2018; Rheingold, 2002; Rondfeldt et al, 1998; Smith, 1759; Surowiecki, 2005).

Concepts in Action

In everyday online life, “collective intelligence” surfaces in Wikipedia’s “wisdom of the crowd”, and it is common to see people turning to their “hive mind” on social media to work out anything from where to buy food, how to learn a new app for their phone, to what political party to vote for. In political life, manifestations of collective intelligence abound, with both empowering and regressive connotations: from the “swarm intelligence” of the Zapatista uprising and alter-globalisation movements around the turn of millennium, to “smart mobs” turning up for a coordinated action, to “troll-” and “bot-armies”, to the “General Intellect” of Marx, and the free-market’s “invisible hand”. There is a cluster of related terms that are active in a populist imaginary, many of which I have identified in Brexit Britain: migrant swarms, the Will of the People, the mob, the National Popular Will. Linking both Brexit and Trump contexts, Cambridge Analytica whistle-blower Christopher Wylie stated that social media manipulation threatens the “psychology of an entire nation” – pointing to the “collective mind” in play, and the way it is threatened as well as potentialised in open digital space (Wylie, 2019).

Barcelona is the place where I have seen “collective intelligence” used most substantially and most positively by a wide range of actors, and it is a key idea in the current Barcelona City Plan which aims to mobilise technological potential to make city structures more “porous” to people living in the area, thereby nurturing citizen engagement and participation. Decidim already engages in practical problem-solving for issues such the existence of fake accounts (/bots), and governance communities are nurtured to defend meaning and values within these politically ambiguous technologies (Metadecidim, 2019). As my PhD is part of an Ibero-Latin American programme, and I wanted to keep a constructive applied approach for my research, I selected Barcelona as the site of my main PhD fieldwork.

Current Analysis Phase

The research is currently at the beginning of the analysis phase with some follow up fieldwork still taking place.

Whilst in the Decidim office during fieldwork, the idea of “The Hive” surfaced as the most appropriate collective intelligence concept to describe the office team and immediate MetaDecidim community. I have made a first video exploring the idea of “The Hive” through the video material recorded in the Decidim office. For me, this video is still a “rough edit”. That is, although it works as a watchable video in it’s own right, it is open to feedback and participation, and there will be further edits to deepen the analysis and quality of the work.

I am also working on a second video, focused on the researcher-activist networks behind the Decidim project, and the concepts and theories they created through social action and thought over the last decade. These researcher-activist networks are a kind of live collective intelligence in their own right, as well as developing theories and practice of collective intelligence in active use.

Other key ideas on the analytical workbench:

  • The difference between open and participatory research.
  • Decidim as a prototype for public-commons partnerships.

Possible Applications in Wider Context

Particularly in a UK immersed in Brexit, where it is unclear how we are going to make constructive decisions together for whatever scenario going forward, it may be useful to make the practical experience of Decidim – and positive ideas of collective intelligence – more accessible and tangible. There are three main ways that I can currently envisage my PhD research potentially contributing to current challenges:

1. Decidim is an example of deliberative participatory democracy. There is some voting in Decidim, but the votes work in tandem with a body of online discussions as well as face-to-face meetings and processes of the Decidim community. This is distinct from purely vote based referenda, which are normally accompanied by campaigns and debates in the media, however that is not the same as structured deliberative processes such as Decidim or citizen assemblies (both of which can include voting as well). A vote alone will not do the same job as a deliberative participatory process, where we talk, share information and discuss together.

2. Related to the first point is the distinction between outward and inward looking sovereignties, an articulation which should be credited to Xabier Barandiaran, as quoted at the beginning of this text. During the fieldwork, I asked Xabier about the relationship between the Brexit and Catalonia referendums and he made this very clear articulation: there are different political sovereignties in play, sovereignties that can be worked on externally through borders (as in the Catalan and Brexit referendums) and sovereignties that can be worked on internally, through projects such as Decidim. Working on external sovereignty alone will not resolve the issues of internal sovereignty, such as how we make decisions together about what our city, community or region will be like.

3. Populism is being used to explain the rise of numerous political actors and events around the world (Salvini in Italy, Brexit in the UK, Podemos in Spain, Trump in the US, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Putin in Russia and so on). I had not planned to examine populism in my thesis, however, I realised there was a link when I found that terms like “The Will of The People” had their place in my “collective intelligence” conceptual map. In particular, there are many concepts associated with both left and right wing politics in my conceptual map, and with my supervisors, it has been discussed whether this set of concepts facilitate – or help us navigate – a kind of cognitive slippage between left and right populism. Given debates about whether progressives should reoccupy populist space and discourse, or reject populism per se, mapping out the specifics of the conceptual territory could be a useful contribution (Mouffe and Smucker, 2018).


Conventionally, the PhD thesis is in the written word. As I work in multimedia, in reality a significant portion of the research was developed autonomously of the university-space.


Professor Roger Burrows

Professor Bridgette Wessels

Autonomous Supervisor: Javier Toret

Drawing Notes


This drawing is part of the PhD research. It is one drawing in an exploration of the visual representation of nodes and networks, and engages with issues raised by Yuk Hui and Harry Halpin in their piece “Collective Individuation: The Future of The Social Web”, published as part of the Unlike Us Reader. Social Media Monopolies and Their Alternatives, edited by Geert Lovink and Miriam Rasch (2013).


Barandiaran, Xabier (2018). Telegram Messages with Chris Hotz.
Xabier Barandiaran’s research website:

Daily Mail Comment (2018). “DAILY MAIL COMMENT: Britain will never forgive a Brexit betrayal from vain and arrogant MPs that would shatter the integrity of our democracy.”

Decidim (2019).

Gephi (2019).

Halpin, Harry (2012). “The philosophy of Anonymous. Ontological politics without identity”, Radical Philosophy, Vol.176 (November/December), p. 19-28.

Halpin, Harry and Yuk Hui (2013). “Collective Individuation: The Future of The Social Web”, Unlike Us Reader. Social Media Monopolies and Their Alternatives (eds) Geert Lovink and Miriam Rasch, Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam.

Marx, Karl (1939). Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie (Fundamentals of Political Economy Criticism).

Metadecidim (2019).

Mulgan, Geoff (2017). Big Mind: How Collective Intelligence Can Change Our World. Princeton University Press, New Jersey.

Moffitt, Benjamin (2020). Populism (Key Concepts in Political Theory). Polity Press.

Mouffe, Chantal (2013). Hegemony, Radical Democracy, and the Political. Routledge, Oxon.

Mouffe, Chantal and Jonathan Smucker (2018). “For a Left Populism: Chantal Mouffe in conversation with Jonathan Smucker.”

Nagle, Angela (2017). Kill All Normies. Online culture wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the alt-right, Zerobooks, London.

Notes from Nowhere eds. (2003). We Are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global AntiCapitalism. Verso, New York and London.

Nvivo (2019).

Reddit (2018). “Vladimir Putin tells Theresa May to ‘fulfil will of people’ on Brexit | Politics.”

Rheingold, Howard (2002). Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. Perseus, Cambridge, Mass.

Ronfeldt, David et al (1998). The Zapatista Social Netwar in Mexico. Washington, Rand.

David Shariatmadari, David (2015). “Swarms, floods and marauders: the toxic metaphors of the migration debate”.

Smith, Adam (1759). The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Surowiecki, James (2005). The Wisdom of Crowds. Abacus, London.

Tecnopolitica (2019). Publications list:

Wylie, Christopher (2018). “Cambridge Analytica whistleblower: ‘We spent $1m harvesting millions of Facebook profiles’”
Linked to article:

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