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Tom Atlee
The Co-Intelligence Institute
Eugene, Oregon, USA


What is an underlying question that gives form to your work or interest in this field?

How can we co-create our politics and governance to bring collective wisdom to bear on our immense collective potential for good and ill?

What is your personal experience of collective wisdom in groups?

I have had quite a variety of such experiences. As a teen I spent three years in a weekly Quaker meeting, becoming familiar with silent worship and spirit-based consensus. On the 1986 Great Peace March I learned native council circles. (About 20% of my subsequent circles generated collective wisdom.) A profound experience of group Mind on the March is featured in the prologue to my book, THE TAO OF DEMOCRACY. I spent 2+ years in a weekly dialogue group grounded in Bohm, Korzybski, Krishnamurti and meditation practices, which involved some profound varieties of individual and group consciousness. My first week-long Open Space in 1994 generated a very intense community which produced some fascinating psychic events. My 6+ years with the Bay Area's Center for Group Learning included co-creative experiments in "going meta" -- observing dynamics present among us -- which produced some profound altered states.

But my concern for the societal dimensions of such experience made me hunger for group wisdom that would be of value to those outside the group. I found that at my first workshop in dynamic facilitation in November 1999. I have never been in a group of ordinary people so creatively energized. We redesigned the US health care system so brilliantly that it stunned us. I realized the implications for wise democracy. (Unfortunately, the participant who was to copy our notes got distracted by her work and never got around to it and the notes are now lost...)

All that said, I think the phrase "in groups" in this question may limit our inquiry in important ways, because collective wisdom is only partially a group phenomenon, and ultimately we need to find ways for whole communities and societies to guide themselves with collective wisdom.

What is it about the work in this field that excites you and connects you to your own deepest self?

I care about the destiny of humanity on earth more deeply than anything else. And I believe that the destiny of humanity is intimately bound up with our ability to tap into, realize, discover, generate and co-create collective wisdom. Without that capacity we are -- I feel certain -- soon doomed. On the other hand, with that capacity we will -- I feel equally certain -- co-create a profoundly better civilization than has ever existed on earth. It will be a web of wisdom cultures capable of wisely learning its way into new forms of being and self-organization. Its quality of life will be deeply meaningful, joyful, rich and sustainable.

I relish transcendent group experience, and once even proposed a self-organized movement, CASPER groups, to generate and explore that realm. But I feel my work is no longer focused on the experience itself, but on the social potential of group wisdom.

I now believe, from my own experience and my study of groups, that there is a "core commons" in every person, a collective common ground, that has spiritual dimensions, biological dimensions, and social dimensions. We come from common Spirit, Life and Humanity, and this kinship is fundamental to our makeup. I believe that good group process can dissolve the boundaries that veil and distort that kinship, freeing us into deeper connection, resonating in our core commons. When we reflect on social problems and possibilities from that deeply resonant place, we have an excellent chance of realizing insights, solutions and initiatives that will serve the long-term Greater Good, including the appropriate growth and transformation of ourselves, our communities, and our civilization. That is the wisdom we need.

This field is full of possibilities for bringing us there.

That is what keeps me at this.

Please provide a brief storyline or snapshot of what brought you to this work.

I was raised in an activist family, concerned about the world. I studied mysticism as a teen, did zen, yoga and psychedelics. I dropped out of college to resist the Vietnam War, but soon found myself in Scientology trying to make the planet sane. This was a very rich and intense experience, with some downsides that led to my departure after twelve years. When I returned to the peace movement I realized that the dysfunctions of progressive movements and Scientology were totally different, but that both involved smart, well-intentioned people often doing crazy, not-so-smart things as groups. The 1986 Great Peace March showed me that could be different. I spent the next 15 years exploring group and organizational phenomena -- and collaborative and whole-system methodologies. My associates helped make corporations or activists more effective. I wanted to help societies be more sane and collectively intelligent. Peter Senge, Arny Mindell, Meg Wheatley and Harrison Owen were major influences. Jim Rough, Kenoli Oleari, Eileen Palmer, Juanita Brown, and Rosa Zubizarreta are friends, guides and thinking partners on the journey. Some of my best conversations are with my daughter Jennifer Atlee, my partner Karen Mercer and my local friends.

How would you like to be available to others in this field? What would be a meaningful connection?

I would, of course, love to talk with people interested in transforming politics and governance using powerful forms of dialogue and deliberation, people interested in the impact of group wisdom outside the group. I have much research about this to share, and am happy to learn others' approaches, and to join in shared inquiries. A litmus test for approaches that particularly interest me is: What impact could they potentially have on developments in biotechnology and nanotechnology that could destroy (human) life on earth.. (My focus on citizen reflective councils arose from a sense that they could have a profound effect on these developments.) I also bring inquiries about:

* the common underlying dynamics that make diverse approaches effective
* the potential synergies between diverse approaches
* our historic role in the evolution of our species and cultures.

And I bring my belief in the democratic power of implicit spirituality.

Links to this site or others

The Co-Intelligence Institute

The Tao of Democracy

Innovations in Democracy

Deep Democracy and Community Wisdom

Politics for a co-creative world

Empowered Dialogue Can Bring Wisdom to Democracy

The Tao of Co-Intelligence

The National Coalition on Dialogue and Deliberation

A Call to Move Beyond Public Opinion to Public Judgment

Democracy and the Evolution of Societal Intelligence

The Challenge of Technology in a Democracy

How to Make a Decision Without Making a Decision

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