Contextual Intelligence, the Culture of Generosity, and Us


I have put myself on a news diet of sorts. I read news online to control what I read a bit more. Even so I have decided that I must reduce my exposure to the mass killings, violence, racial tensions, and ethnic hatred that dominate the news lately. It upsets me too much that so much hatred and cruelty have overshadowed the basic goodness in most people’s hearts.

How did we get to this world state? More importantly, how can we promote more understanding of different experiences, values, and moral/religious beliefs? How does the web, which already is a powerful connector (think Arab spring) play into this?

I’ve been reading Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky, who also wrote Here Comes Everybody. He is on the faculty at New York University’s Tish

Clay Shirky's TED talk on Cognitive Surplus

Clay Shirky’s TED talk on Cognitive Surplus

School of the Arts. Both books emphasize that new technology, internet and cellular, have the power to change how we think about collective action. He posits that we all have the ability, through technology, to connect with each other and share important information, take collective action, and create our own power to the people (you must excuse me, I’m a child of the 60’s and 70’s). He terms this the “Culture of Generosity”.

He uses the example of (which means testimony in Swahili) and how mapping violent outbreaks in Kenya in 2008 allowed everyone to trace where it was originating from and how it was spreading. People on the street, using their cell phones, sent in their reports and Ushahidi mapped and put it online for all to see. Since then, Ushahidi has been utilized around the globe for many different purposes to add to the common good, with all data crowdsourced from those in the midst of the crisis or affected areas. Ushahidi, in the spirit of the common good, is open source ware. New York City used Ushahidi during Hurricane Sandy to track flooding and damage. Reading Shirky (watch his TED talk) and visiting the Ushahidi web site has lifted my spirits immensely.

In my regular mailbox, the Harvard Business Review arrived with articles on working in a global world and the importance of understanding local culture, norms, and values to build functional teams, realize profits, and gain the respect and loyalty of workers and customers. The author Tarun Khanna, on the faculty of Harvard Business School, labels this ability as Contextual Intelligence. He defines Contextual Intelligence as: “the ability to understand the limits of our knowledge and to adapt that knowledge to an environment different from the one in which it was developed.” In the case studies he presents, he uses both business and not for profit examples. Nonprofit organizations’ use of contextual intelligence can mean either reaching those in need or not reaching anyone at all. Businesses and organizations that replicate their model without first getting to know the people in the area will find their so called “tried and true” model will not work. This brought to mind that throughout history one people has imposed their “tried and true” model on another people, most often with disastrous  results. We are seeing that all over the globe right now.

Contextual intelligence reminded me of Howard Gardiner’s work on Multiple Intelligences, or modalities, from 1983. Gardiner observed that some people are better at some modalities than others, but that didn’t make them more intelligent, just more comfortable with that modality. He defined these modalities as, according to wikipedia: “musical–rhythmic, visual–spatial, verbal–linguistic, logical–mathematical, bodily–kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic. He later suggested that existential and moral intelligence may also be worthy of inclusion.” I want to add contextual intelligence to this list – it seems there are people who are more comfortable and adept at being open to other cultures, opinions, values and ideas than others. Is this a new online leadership quality – the ability to understand the limits of our knowledge and adapt it to new contexts?

Which brings me back to the news, online leadership, connectivity, the common good, and networked technology (the internet and smartphones), all topics Doris and I have been blogging about on this site.

What We Can Do

To combat the negative news, we can all work online towards creating more Ushahidi organizations (do go and read their mission – it is inspiring) that combats violence with real, crowdsourced information available to all.

We can develop our contextual intelligence and use search engines to mine for stories, information, customs, geography, history of other cultures, religions, tribes, peoples to promote understanding and tolerance.

We can add to the culture of generosity by giving back to the online common good through reflections in our own and others’ blogs, supporting effective organizations, providing reliable and valid information that adds to examining a problem or conflict, and together generating possible solutions.

Lastly, we can bundle all of these together, along with our strongest intelligences or modalities, to develop our online leadership skills so we can be beacons of light and create a world where we can’t wait to read the news. Networked technology makes this not only possible, but plausible and doable.

Let’s all light our beacons and work together in cyberspace to make this happen.


Featured image courtesy of

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