Group Intelligence and Atlantic Community
Amid developments in Ukraine, ongoing TTIP negotiations, and NATO's resurgence as a topic of policy debate, the editorial team at Atlantic Community takes a step back to consider the mechanisms behind the analysis our members provide. This exploration of collective or group intelligence reflects on ways in which Atlantic Community harnesses the power of this phenomenon, while avoiding its pitfalls, to produce sound, well-reasoned policy recommendations.
Collective intelligence is a concept that has drifted in and out of public discourse over the past decade. Awareness of the idea arguably reached its peak following the 2005 publication of James Surowiecki's popular book, The Wisdom of Crowds. Surowiecki observes that groups as a whole often reach better decisions than any member might alone. In a simplified example, he reports that if a group is asked to guess the number of beans in a large jar, the average response is generally more accurate— and more consistent over time — than any individual's. The concept of collective intelligence is one central to our society, not least as a core principle of democracy and market economics. Atlantic Community applies the group intelligence approach to the think-tank model, which is traditionally driven by the analysis of individual experts. We do this primarily through our theme weeks and Atlantic Memos.
Critics—and many advocates—of collective intelligence point out that it is only successful in certain environments. Indeed, when an idea goes "viral," the effect can be a lack of analytical reflection as the individual is bombarded with the same message from all sides. The challenge for Atlantic Community is to harness the power of group intelligence while preventing the kind of groupthink that would lead to poorly considered policy recommendations.
Surowiecki has identified four conditions under which group intelligence thrives. Here's how Atlantic Community measures up:
1. Diversity of Opinion
To best increase the overall intelligence of a group, each member must contribute privately cultivated suggestions; the more diverse these opinions, the more intelligent the group. As a non-partisan, open think tank, Atlantic Community places a high value on ideational diversity among its members and contributors, and op-eds by individual authors are the foundation for all our projects. Calls for articles on specific topics are worded to encourage a wide range of problem-solving approaches, and an active comment section provides a platform to those with dissenting ideas.
In addition to competitions and theme weeks, members have the opportunity to publish unsolicited articles. This member-driven agenda allows for maximum inclusion, creating space for well-reasoned ideas, no matter how distant from the mainstream.
Diversity of opinion is of course enhanced when individuals form thoughts independently and without mutual influence. For this reason, Atlantic Community publishes articles our members write on their own before bringing contributors together in memo workshops. We also take care to publish articles not only by experts, who are influenced by others in the greater policy and think-tank communities, but also less established authors, whose ideas may be more independent or especially innovative. This is a part of the appeal of "young voices" and the fresh perspectives they offer.
Another prerequisite for true diversity of opinion is decentralization, in both a geographic and a disciplinary sense. Geographic diversity is particularly important in a foreign policy context, where it is often inherent to considering both sides of a conflict, and Atlantic Community assigns it high priority as we select articles for publication. The ongoing crisis in Ukraine and its geopolitical consequences, for example, have been analyzed on the site by members throughout Eastern and Western Europe (e.g. Poland, Denmark, Germany, Latvia), Russia, and the United States.
Disciplinary decentralization too has a role to play, and Atlantic Community draws on the perspectives of our diverse membership. Our authors include practitioners—parliamentarians, government officials, and consumer advocates to name a few—as well as academics and students from multiple fields. Exemplifying this approach, our recent panel on drone use consisted of a professor of peace and security studies, a Catholic bishop, a member of the defense and aerospace industry, and two young academics with military ties.
The final requirement for effective group intelligence is a mechanism for distilling diverse, independent, and decentralized contributions into a collective stance. This is where Atlantic Community's editorial team comes in. Striving for neutrality, we gather our members' assessments and policy recommendations, distill them into a first draft of an Atlantic Memo for participating contributors to edit, and oversee the final product.
This is the primary goal of Atlantic Community: to serve as a platform for good ideas from a range of professional experiences, ways of thinking, and corners of the world. Through collective intelligence, members of Atlantic Community are not just individually published authors, but part of a larger whole. The importance of incorporating diverse perspectives into policy recommendations underscores the need to democratize public policy analysis, and we are proud to contribute to that process.
Katherine Lindemann is an editor at atlantic-community.org. She holds a BA in international relations and is a student of political science in the TransAtlantic Masters Program at the Humboldt and Free Universities of Berlin.