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Women And Collective Intelligence Will Solve Our Planetary Crises

February 22, 2012

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The folks in charge don’t seem to be making much of a dent. Could the way women approach problems be better suited for the complicated and interconnected problems we face?

Sustainability is a so-called wicked problem. It is complex, difficult to define, impossible to solve in a linear fashion and the aspects of the problem are so interrelated that it is impossible to consider (and therefore impossible to model) all of the unintended consequences that might accompany any single “solution.”

This complexity makes us anxious. The common approach in the past has been to reduce the problem to smaller parts, solve for “x,” and hope that these disparate solutions aggregate positively. The nature of wicked problems is that they yield to the truth of systems–the consequences of one action are difficult to completely predict because of the many moving parts and interacting factors. The consequences are further disguised because of the time delay in large systems. For instance, the carbon in the atmosphere that is just now reaching a significant tipping point has been accumulating for a century.  The time delay between human increases of atmospheric CO2 and climate consequences is almost entirely at the heart of the current climate “debate.”

History and evidence shows us that in spite of the cult of heroic individualism and the lone-ranger innovator, all great innovation happens within groups. When it comes to wicked problems and implementing complex system shifts, you must bring collective intelligence to bear.

The good news is that we’ve learned a lot about what maximizes group intelligence and the innovation it sparks. IBM has been very interested in growing innovation–this led the company to conclude that group intelligence is the way that most breakthroughs will occur.

Most recently, MIT professors Thomas Malone and  Patrick J. McGovern (the Founding Director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence) presented their collective intelligence findings at an IBM Think event (Professor Malone is at 12:26 minutes, but please watch the entire video–the insights on collective intelligence are critical to grasp).

Per Professor Malone, the first thing to note is that group intelligence is not equal to the collective intelligence of the individuals in the group. So if it’s not individual intelligence, what make groups smarter and therefore better at innovation?

Three consistent factors:

  • The average social perceptiveness of the group members
  • The evenness of conversational participation
  • The proportion of women in the group

In earlier posts I’ve shared why women entrepreneurs are needed for a sustainable future. Beyond confirming earlier work, current studies demonstrate that the same sets of skills that lead me to believe women entrepreneurs are critical for a sustainable future–the ability to connect and read social clues, a desire to create community and seek balance, and a pre-disposition to collaboration–mean that women are needed in significant numbers in every big conversation and leadership decision related to sustainability.

Given the scope of the wicked problem we face, we may want to get a female majority at the leadership level as soon as possible. Our collective future probably depends on it.

Jean Brittingham is the founder and author of The SmartGirls Way. She is an expert in sustainable development, communication, leadership and culture, economic and cultural innovation, women’s equality, and the future of entrepreneurism. Jean is a member of the Katerva Challenge Global Experts Panel, and has served as an advisor and faculty member for the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership, and sits on numerous business and nonprofit boards.



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