Civic Intelligence

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

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 actually 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 21st 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." He was describing the unprecedented movement that arose simultaneously in hundreds of places around the world (including Melbourne, Australia, as shown above). 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." As an expression of pent-up desire and a will to work for a better world, it's also a manifestation of civic intelligence.

To meet the need for civic problem solving, governments, companies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) citizens and "ordinary" people are beginning to acknowledge the vast problems that humankind now faces and devising new strategies, tactics and paradigms to help ameliorate them. To help with these daunting tasks a growing array of socio-technical information and communication systems are 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, or the various types of intelligences identified by Howard Gardner in Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (or even, erotic intelligence, the cover story in a recent edition of the Utne Reader), 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). Civic Intelligence is a type of intelligence that focuses on the betterment of society as a whole – not just on individual aggrandizement. Moreover since Civic Intelligence focuses on society as a whole, its manifestation is collective and massively distributed. 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 non-human 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 they 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 topic of this pattern.

The number of organizations exhibiting civic intelligence today is incredibly 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 the first published 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 don't. 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.

A model (illustrated below and described in more detail elsewhere) of civic intelligence that depicts its primary processes has been proposed (Schuler, 2001). It contains three main components: the "environment" which includes everything that is relevant to the organization, yet "outside" of the organization; (2) the "mental model" (or "core") that corresponds to the sum of knowledge that the organization uses; and (3) the remaining constituents of the organization including its resources (including people) and most importantly 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 non-intrusively.
  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 of 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 non-informational 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 doesn't 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's important to develop surveys and other types of diagnostic tools (instruments) that can help organizations effectively use the civic intelligence paradigm. This information could be key in evaluating actions or developing plans. Some of the other uses of this knowledge include inventorying civic intelligence initiatives of geographical regions and/or thematic activist areas, convening inter-organizational 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 to 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.

Introductory graphic from February 15, 2003 antiwar demonstration, Melbourne, Australia.


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

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