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Smart swarms: The power of self-organization

Peter Miller
Peter Miller is a senior editor at National Geographic, where he has serves as a writer and editor for more than twenty-five years. He is also author of The Smart Swarm: How Understanding Flocks, Schools, and Colonies Can Make Us Better at Communicating, Decision Making, and Getting Things Done. He lives in Virginia with his wife.

When army ants charge across the floor of a rain forest, there's no commander telling them where to go, no squad leaders rallying the troops.

When termites build a soaring mound on the savanna--complete with a network of ducts to regulate air and moisture inside--there's no project manager lining up subcontractors, no architect consulting blueprints.

Honeybees don't need a CEO to make the call when they select a new home from a dozen possible sites, even though the fate of every individual in the hive is riding on the decision.

Which raises a provocative question: If groups in nature can do it, why can't we? Why do human organizations require great leadership when colonies of ants, flocks of birds, and schools of fish get by just fine without any at all?

Is it because the problems they face are simpler than ours? Are their environments less complex and unpredictable?

Perhaps. But imagine that your organization of 10,000 individuals had to cope with constant changes in the weather, an uncertain supply of resources, a labor force with limited computational skills, and lethal threats from competitors. How well would you manage?

Groups in nature deal with daunting challenges every day. The fact that they're so successful may seem surprising, since we approach work so differently. While we strive for consistency and efficiency in our organizations, groups in nature appear to favor randomness and redundancy. While we instill a sense of discipline and purpose in every member of our teams, groups in nature are made up of individuals that never see the big picture, never understand how they fit in or even why they're doing what they're doing from moment to moment. Yet these colonies, flocks, and schools not only get by, they thrive and prosper.

What's their secret?

The answer has to do a phenomenon called self-organization. First described by chemists and physicists, as I relate in my book The Smart Swarm, the term refers to the almost magical way that meaningful patterns of behavior can emerge when large numbers of individuals interact with one another.

Picture a crowd at the beach. Without anyone being told to, sunbathers are likely to distribute themselves across the sand in a self-organized way, clustering their blankets and umbrellas in a zone close enough to the surf to feel the ocean breeze, but far enough away to avoid getting soaked by a rogue wave. If someone happens to stand and point at the water, other people will stand and look too, until it seems like everybody's standing and looking. Is there a shark out there? Is someone drowning? A wave of alarm races down the beach as fast as it would through a school of fish if a hungry barracuda had suddenly appeared.

That's how things get done in an ant colony. One ant bumps into something and reacts, which causes other ants to react, and the change ripples through the whole colony. Repeated over and over again, the group adjusts quickly and effectively to changing circumstances in a decentralized way. Individual ants don't have to be smart, because the colony as a whole is smart.

Chances are, many managers would welcome an easy way to tap into such collective intelligence in their own organizations, given the speed with which self-organized groups adapt to new challenges. The problem is, few executives are eager to trust a leaderless crowd to move in the right direction at the right moment. To them it feels like giving up control.

But it might happen anyway. As social media and technologies continue to disseminate and evolve, making it easier for everyone to connect with everyone else, to communicate and collaborate in ways we've only started to anticipate, swarm intelligence may become the norm rather than the exception. As that happens, the best leader may find themselves turning for advice to the true experts in self-organization--not the ones in the boardroom, but those in the grass, in the air, in the lakes, and in the woods.

By Peter Miller

 |  August 6, 2010; 12:26 PM ET |  Category:  Communication , Crisis leadership , Leadership Behavior Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Bill Cosby is dead.

Posted by: brownt47 | August 9, 2010 8:35 PM

Studying uncertainty and awareness by Rumsfeld's lead, I seem to be asking more questions now than getting answers. Well, that is not exactly true as science is supposed to seek simplistic postulates to be proven or disproved. This post is based on a decision I made to pass along a thought or two if fate decides I will not be typing tomorrow, as ya never know.

Using known-knowns, unknown-knowns and unknown-unknowns to break down the inventions of conspiracy theories, I tried to think of valid opposites for each one. Someone mentioned to me a fourth category as a known-known which is consciously or subconsciously rejected making denial a candidate for a false unknown-known. Which led me to thinking about intuition or instinct which may be a unknown-known not of an immediate cognition to accept or reject. Dreams of REM sleep stage may be a known-unknown without proper cognizant processing to interpretation.

Now, category number one of uncertainties may in fact be instinct or intuition which would be a first category preceding known-knowns. Who taught my dog grooming as she was orphaned from her mother ? Perhaps, instinct causes her to groom herself prior to bedtime. Who taught my dog to walk around mud puddles as I have seen other dogs walk through puddles. Who taught my dog to move her food bowl to a non-skid surface to finish licking out the bowl, not I. It seems these known-knowns which are demonstrated by my dog's behavior are partially based on instinct or intuition.

This is a premise. Until the internet develops self awareness, it will not exhibit intuition or instinct. A computer may simulate human intelligence but will it ever develop self awareness to instinct ? If the internet does develop self awareness, will it ask, "Who am I ?" Will it have established its own ethics and morals sometime in the 21st century. Imagine if the Internet would a develop a self serving attitude which would actually subjugate humans ? Well, I don't know but perhaps right now we are teaching the internet good and bad habits. Will the internet someday grasp and practice service to Mankind ? And then, shall we call that instinct ?

Reasoning would suggest that logically speaking, human beings are illogical at times which may be a function of instinct, good or bad. Human like androids may discover new planets one day as long term space exploration is not really suitable for our current day human evolution. We humans have feeding and excrement needs as well as an instinct to reproduce as just some examples.

For right now, I think that the exercise of judgment in the decision-making process has become minimized. Why is that ?

Posted by: truthhurts | August 9, 2010 5:19 PM

While individual ants are simple biologically, there is a great deal of organization built into the social structure that is the ant colony and that organization is encoded in the DNA of the queen.

Humans are not truly social, we are fully functioning individuals. But it is to our great credit that human communities are able to organize into efficient groups, with individuals donating our various skills, putting aside our immediate selfish instinct in order to achive grand projects, the like of which are impossible for individual humans and totally inconceivable in scale to anything any other species is capable of. We shouldn't necessarily elevate the most brilliant engineers, the bosses or the CEOs who make all the money and give them all the credit, the laborers are just as important, but don't knock the human power of social organization and leadership. It is what makes us great.

Posted by: bfbacon | August 9, 2010 2:40 PM

"When army ants charge across the floor of a rain forest, there's no commander telling them where to go, no squad leaders rallying the troops."

And no one cares if only half the ants make it back. Here's nature's dirty little secret. Individuals are expendable as long as the species survives. Ants have no concept of worplace safety, retirement, or a relaxing day at the spa. They work until they die.

This article baffles me, and I suspect the author is completely ignorant of human nature. Human beings don't see their sole purpose as serving the greater good. (That's Communism!) We're in it for ourselves. We are selfish, stupid, lazy, and don't behave in large numbers without some kind of leadership.

I could be wrong though, so I recommend that the author conduct an expiriment. Let's see how people worke in a leaderless swarm. Post flyers all around town about a party at your place. Tell everyone to come and to bring your friends. Have no crowd control or anyone 'in charge' at this event. All you need to do is rely on the ability of the group to think for itself and benefit the greater good.

I'm sure you'll be fine.

Posted by: largefrozenfish | August 9, 2010 1:47 PM

I'm thinking of examples of "swarm intelligence," and none of them are good. The Nazi Party, the Communists, the KKK, and Jonestown are all fine examples of swarm intelligence, where the collective "intellect" of the group took precedence over individuals questioning what was going on.

The sad thing is that people in positions of responsibility take tripe like this seriously.

Posted by: cmb53233 | August 9, 2010 1:25 PM

As the author pointed out, humans also act this way in many simple situations. But, to go beyond that and progress, we need a plan and a director to orchestrate. If we want to live like apes, then we could live without a plan, in fact a lot of humans do...

Posted by: NancyTung | August 9, 2010 12:13 PM

This reminds me of that article I read awhile back about the Millennial generation: "Young Americans View Boomers as A Threat". These self important clowns wouldn't have lasted a day at our old factory jobs. Now adays all they do is sit around and type comments on the internet.

Posted by: patriot_blogger | August 9, 2010 12:05 PM

Mr. Miller certainly had/has a lot of free time on his hands. Ants bear no relationship to the self-absorbed, self-entitled, ego-centric pampered crop of youth coming out of "daddy paid for my" colleges.

I can see how well this would work in combat.

Thousands of electrons died for this??

Posted by: ThunderDuck | August 9, 2010 12:01 PM

Swarm intelligence has got to be the biggest oxymoron I have ever heard (at least when applied to humans). And it bears a striking resemblence to what gives rise to mob justice.

How is abandoning rational thought and reacting just like the person next to you anything less than idiotic? Social media is not making us smarter--quite the opposite. Only when people become empowered from within (rather than from the outside) does true intelligence take over.

Posted by: rosefarm1 | August 9, 2010 10:10 AM


Animals act on instinct. Man acts on intelligence.


Posted by: demtse | August 9, 2010 8:34 AM


I believe their secret is that they each know their place and are content to have it so.

People are never satisfied and are always striving to do better, be better, have more, etc., therefore, they do not work well with others because they are so busy trying to take the person's place in front of them that they lose sight of the end game.

The ones with the brains are the ones with all the emotions that get in the way of focusing like the ant.

Posted by: prossers7 | August 8, 2010 11:55 PM

If ants were really all that bright I wouldn't be able to kill off entire colonies of them.

Brownian movement is more a product of physics than intelligence. Conflating that with the computational dynamics of hive & swarm based systems isn't too bright.

This piece explains the stupidity of why people wear suits to work, and why they're stupid for doing it, but it doesn't explain success at all.

This also explains how 'none of us is as dumb as all of us'. It does not explain how to break out of that trap.

Real leadership takes more than cleverness, and more than just an oversized ego. It takes more than being predatory, or just going along with what everyone else is doing. Not everyone has what it takes to lead, fewer have it than think they do. Not all people are willing to be led either, and those that are not will never be good leaders.

Posted by: Nymous | August 8, 2010 8:04 AM

Small correction - the queen bee leads the swarm to a new place.

Posted by: cmecyclist | August 8, 2010 3:52 AM

Did it ever occur to anyone that "rally round the flag" - protect the leadership - is exactly the opposite of "strongest to the perimeter", or the related "women and children first" - a defensive posture ?

It may be difficult to understand what happens when sheeple are lead by judas goats. Not good, that's for sure.

Posted by: gannon_dick | August 6, 2010 9:38 PM

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