How do you define collective intelligence?

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Many versions of collective intelligence are active around us. From the social media Hive Mind, to wikipedia’s Wisdom of the Crowd, to the ant colonies under our feet, to Extinction Rebellion’s swarming tactics, to talk of citizen assemblies solving Brexit or even climate change. To name but a few. My PhD aims to organise different conceptualisations and manifestations of collective intelligence into written and visual meta-analysis. In the wider video work, I am also working with audio-visual analysis and am currently exploring “The Sound of the Hive”. In other words, exploring an understanding of collective intelligence and the hive, through sound and patterns of sounds.

From my PhD so far, three conceptualisations of collective intelligence have seemed strongest. The first two come from the fieldwork in Barcelona with the Decidim project:

First, The Hive. In Spanish, “The Hive” translates as “La Colmena”. In Catalan, three different words are under consideration as the best translation: El Rusc (the literal beehive where the bees live); El Eixam (like hivemind, swarm or multitude); or El Nucli (a more generic idea of hive, like a “nucleus”).

On returning from my fieldwork, the “Sound of the Hive” rang clearly in my ears, and I have been exploring work in this vein. Work to be shared publicly soon.

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Second, distributed cognition. The idea of “distributed cognition” was underlined in the book “Cognition in the Wild” by Edwin Hutchins (1995), which describes how a ship’s crew – in conjunction with the ship’s instruments – think and work together to navigate the ship. The term distributed cognition can sound a little dry, but it does at least partly capture how people, objects and techniques come together in a kind of orchestra of thinking, being and effecting action.

In my fieldwork, I saw how people deeply connected, thought and worked together. Sometimes the idea of The Hive best captured this orchestra of people. Other times the idea of distributed cognition seemed better… maybe for some smaller groups, or more static groups, or for people who had worked together for very long periods of time. At this stage, I cannot say much more as my fieldwork is governed by ethical agreements with the fieldwork community, and the fieldwork-based research is still in the “confidential” stage. When agreements have been developed for material to be shared more publicly, work will be shared here at

The third conceptualisation is “distributed problem solving” which came from discussions with @LoQueSigue_ during my pilot study in Mexico City. The pilot study sadly coincided with the disappearance of 43 student teachers in the hands of the police in Iguala, Mexico. Problem-solving can sound like a soulless exercise, however in this context it was conceived as an urgent, collective and effective effort to bring about justice. Here we saw massive social mobilisations both calling for the students to be brought back alive, and also shifting the discourse on the ongoing massive level of disappearances in Mexico. The state sought to blame the drug cartels and corruption at the local level. However, for those around me at least, the words of the state fell flat, disbelieved and scorned. This massive statement written on the floor of the Zocaló, the capital city’s national square, articulated the answer that was hovering in the air, in everyone’s mind. It gave a clear collective answer to the question “Who took the 43?”… the answer being… FUE EL ESTADO …IT WAS THE STATE:

Image Credit and Source:

“Distributed problem-solving” may sound like a very dry reduction of such an impassioned and vital action. However, what it does capture is this sense of a shared responsibility and a shared space, people taking their own initiative to act where they see a collective need, and those actions having effective impacts. This “Fue El Estado” action maybe made such an impact because it stated the obvious that somehow had not already been said. Everyone knew, but almost because everyone knew, no-one bothered to say it, or maybe no-one dared to say it? Going further, maybe the answer (and the question) had still not been fully articulated even silently, as the state’s role had become so integrated into the background. Recalling the butterfly effect, that person or group of people who put those words “Fue El Estado” on the Zocaló’s floor, created a galvinising moment that possibly permanently shifted discourse on the causes of disappearances, and brought strength to a grieving people at a critical time.
[based on recollections of discussions and thoughts at the time – to be checked]

[Thank u to Mama D for the initial question that prompted this post]

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