Selected Readings on Collective Intelligence

February 02, 2017 by Geoff Mulgan


Collective intelligence is a newish term for an old topic. It describes how intelligence functions at large scales: how teams or meetings do or don’t make the most of their members, through to how whole societies solve problems. The phrase was first used in the 19th century but has been given much greater prominence recently thanks to the spread of digital tools. There’s relatively little literature on collective intelligence as such, but there is a very broad literature of related topics, from philosophical speculation about how the Internet could change the way humanity thinks to social psychology, computer science to economics. This reflects the fact that there isn’t yet a coherent discipline of collective intelligence. But over the next few decades there’s a good prospect that one will emerge, synthesising insights from across a range of disciplines, and in particular showing how the combination of human and machine intelligence can help groups think and act more successfully.

The following readings give a flavour of the range. They include some very broad sweeps (such as the books by Pierre Levy and Howard Bloom); a collection from Thomas Malone and Michael Bernstein which aims to map the state of the field, including the contributions of various social science disciplines; a recent collection from the foremost contemporary author on individual intelligence (Robert Sternberg); and a very different collection focused more on democracy and public decision-making (Helene Landemore and Jon Elster).

The piece by Anita Woolley et al is a good example of a specific experiment which showed some of the characteristics that make a group better at solving problems. Cass Sunstein’s book is a very readable guide to group decision making, which reaffirms the principle that it’s often sensible to get a group to agree on diagnosis before moving onto prescription. Simon Hartley’s book on teams is a good example of the huge literature on what makes teams work – whether in sports or business. Michael Nielsen’s book is a fascinating account of how science is being transformed by the Internet and new ways of mobilising many minds to solve problems. Finally, I’ve also added on a link to a short paper I wrote on what’s known about making meetings successful – which shows why the vast majority of meetings in academic, business and politics are so unsuccessful in making the most of the brainpower of their participants.