How does the collective mind work in practice?

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(District Heating Plant, Vienna, Austria (Friedensreich Hundertwasser))

As most people are aware, empirical knowledge, social knowledge, aesthetic knowledge, ethical knowledge and introspective knowledge each have their own knowledge base, with its own goals and sources of evidence. They even have their own languages.

Traditionally, these types of knowledge, especially when they evolve into interests, are more accustomed to competing with each other than in collaborating. They operate within a tradition that values organisational knowledge above scientific findings, and both of these above community and individual experience. As well as starting from behind, with expectations of conflict of interest, each knowledge base has learnt to reject the others. Individual contributions are considered to be biased, a community’s input as anecdotal, a specialist’s insight as fragmented and an organisation’s perspective as self-serving. All of them tend to see a holistic, integrative perspective as impossible. The grain of truth in each rejection makes it even more challenging to find a way for the set of interests to listen to each other.

Within the collective thinking framework, however, the knowledge generated by their shared understanding can be considered as a:

  • Nested set (each building on the other)
  • Distributed network (in which each helps the other)
  • Level playing field (in which each question and each interest is given equal weight).

Collective thinking means that, in the spirit of valuing difference, each contribution and each type of knowledge could be accepted as equally valid, and the embodied ideas as contributing to each other.

In a further fragmentation, the objectivity the Enlightenment sought has led to the separation of ideals and facts, ideas and action.

As a counterweight to these artificial divisions, human beings are a social species whose actions reflect a synthesis of ideas and facts. Individuals are familiar with answering all the questions at once. Indeed, we implicitly do so every time we make an important decision.

Are you interested in finding out more about how the collective mind works in practice?

Further reading:

Transformational Change Book CoverIn Collective Learning for Transformational Change: a guide to collaborative action, Valerie A. Brown and Judith A. Lambert provide a practical guide for specialists and decision-makers desiring transformational change. It outlines the mechanisms for bringing those parties together, and provides a number of case studies, so you can see how collective learning can work in practice.







SLIEMIn Social Learning in Environmental Management, Meg Keen, Valerie A. Brown and Rob Dyball explore how collective thinking has been applied to environmental issues.








Sustainability And HealthIn Sustainability and Health, Valerie A. Brown, John Grootjans, Jan Ritche, Mardie Townsend and Glenda Verrinder explore how collective thinking has been applied to public health issues.







Towns whole of community EngagementIn Towards Whole of Community Engagement, Heather Aslin and Valerie A. Brown provide a practical ‘set of tools’ that can be used by government and communities to implement engagement processes that are both appropriate and effective.






CVCB book coverIn Collaboration in Policy and Practice: Synthesising Policy Implications, Dana M. Kelly, Valerie A. Brown, Michael Cuthill, Tony Byrne and Helen Ross explore collaboration for the purposes of capacity building in rural industries and natural resource management in Australia.