Civic Intelligence

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project

The human race has multiplied tremendously since its origins in Africa millions of years ago. During its stay on earth, it has changed the world dramatically through social and technological innovation. In spite of great success in increasing its numbers and gaining dominion over much of the planet, the problems that humankind has created—war, famine, environmental degradation, injustice, and a host of others —may be increasingly immune to its attempts to correct them. Unfortunately there is ample evidence that the economic and political elites of the world are not able—or willing—to address these problems effectively, humanely, and ecologically responsibly. Civil society is emerging as an important force to address these problems, but in spite of best intentions, civil society efforts are often disjointed, duplicative, inflexible, ineffectual, and destructively competitive.


The social and the natural environment face profound challenges at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Society often develops intelligent collective responses to collective problems, often through citizen activism. Civil society and ordinary citizens are often at the forefront of the creation and adoption of new paradigms, ideas, tactics, and technologies that are used to address shared problems and create a better future.


In early 2003, days before the United States invaded Iraq, Robert Muller, former assistant secretary general of the United Nations, called attention to the incipient potential of the citizenry: ‘‘Never before in the history of the world has there been a global visible, public, viable, open dialogue and conversation about the very legitimacy of war’’ ( Twist 2003). He was describing the unprecedented movement that arose simultaneously in hundreds of places around the world. What this movement represents is the advent of an immensely powerful force. Muller called it a ‘‘merging, surging, voice of the people of the world.’’ And James Moore (2003), a multifaceted scholar, activist, and businessperson, called this same phenomenon the ‘‘second superpower’’ whose ‘‘beautiful but deeply agitated face . . . is the worldwide peace campaign,’’ and ‘‘the body of the movement is made up of millions of people concerned with a broad agenda that includes social development, environmentalism, health, and human rights.’’ Both are expressions of pent-up desire and a will to work for a better world, and both are manifestations of civic intelligence.

To meet the need for civic problem solving, governments, companies, nongovernmental organizations ( NGOs) citizens, and ordinary people are beginning to acknowledge the vast problems that humankind now faces and are devising new strategies, tactics, and paradigms to ameliorate them. To help with these daunting tasks, a growing array of sociotechnical information and communication systems is being developed. People and organizations need both general paradigms and specific ideas to help them devise tactics and strategies that further their objectives while working cooperatively with other people and organizations.

Civic intelligence, like Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence (1995) or the various types of intelligences identified by Howard Gardner in Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1983) (or even erotic intelligence, the cover story in a recent edition of the Utne Reader (September/October 2003)), is a type of intelligence, one with a specific focus; it can be used to explore and invigorate a flexible and powerful competence that goes beyond the traditional notion of intelligence (which is typically equated to what IQ tests measure) in several important ways. Civic intelligence is a type of intelligence that focuses on the betterment of society as a whole, not just on individual aggrandizement. Moreover since it is a capability of society as a whole, its manifestation is collective and distributed throughout the population. The boundary between one person’s ‘‘intelligence’’ and another person’s ‘‘intelligence’’ is permeable, indistinct, and constantly shifting. Ideas in your mind today might be central to my understanding of the world tomorrow. How ‘‘intelligent’’ would one person be without interacting with other people directly (through discussion or argument) or indirectly (through reading books, watching television, or pondering works of art) or with the nonhuman world (observing nature, for example).

Civic Intelligence builds on what we know about how people learn and maintain knowledge about the world and their place within it. Intelligent behavior in individuals is rich and multifaceted. It involves perception, monitoring, deliberating, remembering and forgetting, categorizing, coming up with new ideas and modifying old ones, negotiating and discussing, making decisions, testing hypotheses, and experimenting. Society as a whole engages in analogous activities, and these are embedded in our institutions, traditions, artifacts, and conversations. That these activities of collective intelligence exist is indisputable. Less obvious but also true is the fact that they are all subject to change. The idea that they could and should be consciously improved is the heart of this pattern. This recommendation is bolstered by the findings of Jared Diamond, the prominent historian and author at the University of California at Los Angeles, who has extensively studied how societies face challenges with potentially catastrophic consequences. Somewhat incredibly, Diamond’s research reveals that the ‘‘commonest and most surprising’’ of the four ways in which societies fail to address their problems is their ‘‘failure even to try to solve a problem that it has perceived,’’ even one that ultimately results in that society’s collapse. To avoid that mistake, we must go beyond examining how we as a society collectively think and take a critical look at how our knowledge and ideas are—and could be—channeled into actions.

The number of organizations exhibiting civic intelligence today is vast and growing. There were ten times more transnational advocacy organizations in 2000 then there were in 1900 ( Keck and Sikkink 1998). Not only are these organizations more numerous, but they are increasingly thoughtful and forward looking. While in the past, protest may have been simply opposed to something, it is not uncommon today for organizations to develop sophisticated analyses and policy recommendations. In an earlier exploration of civic intelligence (Schuler 2001), six dimensions were identified (orientation, organization, engagement, intelligence, products and projects, and resources) in which organizations and movements that demonstrate civic intelligence are likely to differ from those that do not. The set of attributes associated with those dimensions that tend to characterize civic intelligence organizations and movements is a first approximation of a descriptive model of civic intelligence. Some notable examples (among tens of thousands) include the worldwide Indymedia network, the World Social Forum, the Global Fund for Women, Jubilee 2000, Science for the People, and New Tactics in Human Rights. Civic intelligence can also be manifested locally. The graphic at the beginning of the pattern, for example, shows how neighborhood art —in this case a mural about the causes and effects of asthma—can be educational and lead to political engagement and other proactive civic activities. Many of these efforts are of necessity holistic, multidisciplinary, and entrepreneurial since the people and organizations that the efforts would ideally engage with cannot necessarily be expected to do what might be considered the right thing. In an interesting turn of events, the idea of collective intelligence, which is not necessarily aligned with civic intelligence (also a form of collective intelligence), is now receiving attention from various quarters. One group, the cyber pundits, are hoping it will be the ‘‘next big thing.’’ Tim O’Reilly (2006), publisher of O’Reilly books and the man who coined the expression ‘‘Web 2.0,’’ defines it as ‘‘the business revolution in the computer industry caused by the move to the Internet as platform, and an attempt to understand the rules for success on that new platform. ‘‘There is another side of this growing interest in collective intelligence as well. This approach is less concerned with making money and more about solving global problems. While these two groups have different aspirations, both of their revolutionary visions are generally based on side-effects or technical aspects, such as new algorithms, semantic webs, or tipping points. Both groups seem to place less faith in the value of collaboratively working together and thereby trying to address the problems that humankind is facing by actually addressing the problems.

A complementary model (illustrated below and described in more detail at of civic intelligence that depicts its primary functional processes has also been proposed (Schuler 2001). This model (or framework) is an amalgam of concepts from social change theory and models of education and human learning. The model is aimed at providing useful exploration in these areas as opposed to offering an algorithm or mechanism that always behaves accurately and with the prescribed result. Generally the two models are to be used in tandem: the descriptive model describes the what, while the functional model describes the how. The functional model contains three main components: the environment, which includes everything that is relevant to the organization yet outside the organization; the mental model (or core), which corresponds to the sum of knowledge that the organization uses; and the remaining constituents of the organization, including its resources (e.g., people) and, most important, the interactive processes under the control of the organization that link the environment and the mental model. The functional model contains eight types of interactive processes that a movement, organization, or other group exhibits when engaging in civic intelligence:

1. Monitoring. How the organization acquires new relevant information nonintrusively.
2. Discussion and deliberation. How organizations discuss issues and determine common agendas, ‘‘issue frames’’ ( Keck and Sikkink 1998), and action plans with other organizations. The mental model of any participants or the organization itself can change as a result of the interactions.
3. Engagement. How the organization attempts to make changes through varying degrees of cooperation and combativeness.
4. Resource transfer. How noninformational resources like volunteers and money are acquired from the environment.
5. Interpretation of new information. How new information is considered and how it ultimately becomes (or does not become) part of the core. New information can also include information about the organization.
6. Maintenance of mental model (includes resource management). How the organization maintains its organizational integrity by consciously and unconsciously resisting change over time.
7. Planning and plan execution. How a campaign is initiated, carried out, and monitored.
8. Modification of mental model. How the core itself is scrutinized by participants in the organization and modified. Another term for this is organizational learning.

The effectiveness of each of these processes will help determine the effectiveness of the entire organization. For that reason, it is important to develop surveys and other types of diagnostic tools that can help organizations use the civic intelligence paradigm effectively. This information could be key in evaluating actions or developing plans. Some of the other uses of this knowledge are inventorying civic intelligence initiatives of geographical regions or thematic activist areas, convening interorganizational workshops, designing curricula, planning campaigns, or even developing new organizations. One of the most important uses of this information is metacognition: examining and evaluating how the processes are used within an organization and changing them as necessary.

The physical, social, and intellectual environment is changing rapidly. Intelligence, more than anything else, describes the capacity to influence and adapt to its environment. Organizations with civic missions have the responsibility to keep their principles intact while interacting effectively with other organizations, both aligned with and opposed to their own beliefs and objectives.


An effective and principled civic intelligence is necessary to help humankind deal collectively with its collective challenges. People need to develop and set into motion theories, models, and tools of civic intelligence that can help integrate thought and action more effectively.

Verbiage for pattern card: 

Civic Intelligence describes how well groups of people address civic ends through civic means. It asks the critical question: Is society smart enough to meet the challenges it faces? Civic intelligence requires learning and teaching. It also requires meta-cognition — thinking about and actually improving how we think and work together.

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