Big Mind: How Collective Intelligence Can Change Our World

In 1857, Richard Chenevix Trench put in motion a plan to create the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. While obviously an effort requiring an army of collectors, the initial time estimates of two years to completion were off by a factor of ten. Nonetheless, the well-organized efforts of these word hounds eventually produced something fundamentally different from the simple sum of the intellectual parts. Such is the promise of collective intelligence. Today, with data coming at individuals and organizations ever faster, the task of turning these bits and bytes into something reliably understandable may be the defining challenge for those interested in pursuing life, liberty and happiness. Developing all these data into something more, namely wisdom, will be an even greater challenge.

Enter Big Mind and author Geoff Mulgan’s analysis of collective intelligence and how large groups, private, governmental and academic, can realize its benefits. To be clear, Mulgan is not simply talking about leveraging faster processing speeds of digital technology. Rather, his goal is understanding how groups of individuals collaborate to realize a genuine progression of intelligence. Unlike neurons, for which connection is sufficient, groups of people need considerably more than contact for collective intelligence. Specifically, Mulgan outlines nine elements of collective intelligence, five organization principles for effective collective intelligence, and three “learning loops.”

At its least convincing, Big Mind reads like a glossy management consulting brochure. There are stretches where I lost the thread of the analysis due to a lack of anchoring examples. Some of my thread grasping comes from the fact that Mulgan is feeling for the edge of a new discipline, collective intelligence, so his notions of best practices have yet to be tried. If you manage to soldier through these lulls, there are effective real-world examples aplenty and thought-provoking commentary on intelligence, learning, and wisdom with parts III (Collective Intelligence in Everyday Life) and IV (Collective Intelligence as Expanded Possibility) being the most compelling. It is during this latter third of the book that Mulgan considers the collective intelligence of cities, democracies, and within the academy. Mulgan’s comment that, “…universities do research and development on everything but themselves,” suggests that even our traditional centers of knowledge creation have considerable work to do before becoming effectively collectively intelligent. Efforts such as massive open online courses (MOOCs) being, in most cases, a haphazard start at best.

Big Mind would appeal to readers interested in the future of learning in a connected world. Yes, I realize the phrase “the future of learning” reads like a flashy title from one of those glossy brochures. But, that’s really what it aims to describe. Given that nobody is entirely sure what the future of learning looks like, Mulgan gets a fair amount of leeway. At times, this leeway creates drift in the narrative, but there is plenty to mull over from a book that will be referenced more and more as we know better the shape of learning and intelligence to come.