Mobilising collective intelligence by leaving traces of good practices

This article was published in Top1000funds.

At a global population level, the pure genetic component of intelligence has been estimated to have declined[1] over the last 100 years. This was offset, for decades, by improved education allowing average intelligence ability scores (measured by the well-known IQ test) to rise across generations.

Unfortunately, a number of recent large-cohort studies suggest the education component peaked a while ago, and so individual intelligence scores started falling from the mid-1970s. It would appear that we are getting dumber – just when we most need an intelligence boost amidst an unprecedented climate emergency.

This provocative and overly simplistic snapshot simply aims to be a gateway to a thought: we need to learn to harvest the benefits of collective intelligence.

Global governance is the way forward, but it doesn’t exist

When we think of climate change, we desire global collective action and governance. It is such a complex and interconnected problem that “we” thinking is intuitively more appealing and more powerful than “me” thinking.

With the exception of the 2015 Paris Agreement, governments do not appear to behave as predicted by the collective action framework (we thinking). Rather their climate policies are as much, if not more, influenced by their national politics and various interest groups (eg businesses, politicians, activists, etc).

For example, the recent US Inflation Reduction Act is expected to bring higher employment, green subsidy benefits, and emissions reduction. This breakthrough climate policy has successfully passed via pleasing powerful domestic interests – note that the name of the legislation gives no clue as to its climate credentials. Things seem to be working better at a local level than at a global level.

Building the case for a more distributive leadership approach

We should therefore think about distributed leadership, or shared management, which is arguably a more natural fit in a complex network-based system like ours. Systems leaders must understand and solve the real local issues. When they do so they leave traces of good practice.

One good example can be seen in the insect world. When a foraging ant in a colony discovers a rich food source, it leaves a trail of pheromones as it returns to the nest. Other ants follow and reinforce the pheromone trail, making it stronger and more attractive, leading even more ants to the food source.

Using this as an analogy, we can explain the human love of case studies. A case study is effectively a pheromone trail – “I went here, and did this; you may want to copy me”. This allows for more instinctive and indirect behaviours of followership and emulation.

Last summer, Ecuadorians voted to halt oil drilling in one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet, the Amazon. One of their indigenous leaders and environmental champions seems to echo this leadership model: “It took us thousands of years to get to know the Amazon rainforest. To understand her ways, her secrets, to learn how to survive and thrive with her. […] we are the closest to the land, and the first to hear her cries.”

With the decision and action to stop oil drilling, local traces of best practices have now been left. What needs to be built now is a trail behind them.

What it means for investors?

For investors, it’s time to harvest the benefits of collective intelligence. I see three ways for this to happen:

  1. Think of the portfolio as a form of collective intelligence. This involves a shift in thinking from individual successes to the success of the collective portfolio. For example, the prophylactic use of antibiotics in animals may boost the profits of company X, but anti-microbial resistance would threaten the profits of all other portfolio companies (this is universal ownership, or shareholder commons)
  2. Greater co-operation with other investors. This is the laying of new trails and the give-and-get of learning from and with others. Investor-ants exploring local opportunities (eg biodiversity conservation or restoration) must act as first movers, reducing the cost of action for others to follow. The pay-back is being able to emulate others
  3. Greater collaboration. This is systemic stewardship, as exemplified by the Ecuadorian indigenous leaders. For investors, this involves acting together to bring systemic change that improves rather than destroys long-term value creation. It will also build stronger networks and ultimately collective intelligence.

Today, breaking down the collective action problem into shared leadership building blocks is a powerful tool in the hands of investors to tackle global challenges like climate change and make the overall system more resilient.

Andrea Caloisi is a researcher in the Thinking Ahead Institute at WTW.


[1] Richard Lynn, John Harvey, The decline of the world’s IQ, Intelligence, Volume 36, Issue 2, 2008, Pages 112-120, ISSN 0160-2896, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.intell.2007.03.004