Smart Swarm: Using Animal Behaviour to Organise Our World
Author: Peter Miller
This is a book about the birds and the bees, but in a totally different context. It addresses ‘…what nature can tell us about how to build better organizations today’ (page xii). The author makes the case that animals such as ants have a thing or two to teach humans about organisation. He describes these smart swarm as, ‘…a group of individuals who respond to one another and to their environment in ways that give them the power, as a group, to cope with uncertainty, complexity, and change‘ (page xvii). The book explores how these smart swarm overcome a pervasive problem that bedevils human societies-the challenge of organising their communities.
The book discusses how smart swarm self-organise using processes such as decentralised control and distributed problem-solving (page 10), and it explores how they minimise uncertainty, keep up with change, and manage complexity (page 31). Bees and termites for example ‘… distribute problem solving among many individuals….’ with no individual in charge or anyone seeing the ‘bigger picture’ (page xix). These clever creatures solve problems by using their ‘…collective power to sort through countless possible solutions…’ (page xx). Termites for instance ‘…have no blueprints to follow as they put together their castles of mud’. Instead, they collaborate indirectly using local prompts to make small changes that trigger further improvements (pages 119-121).
The book’s major premise is that the bureaucratic hierarchical structure, which typifies most human societies and organisations, is inadequate and inefficient (page x). The author is critical of human economic models in which ‘… worker bees are to be supervised in their honey production’ (page x). Rather, he advocates the distributed model of organisation that characterises smart swarms. This open system is based on the principle of self-organization; ‘…swarms of bees, flocks of birds, and schools of fish instinctively coordinate their actions’, and they do this without the imposition of a ‘master plan’ (pages 9-10). Individual members of smart swarms make decisions, not by responding to ‘commands form above’, but by responding to ‘local information‘ (page 20). The flight pattern of starlings for example is organised in this way; ‘…by tracking their closest six or seven nearest neighbours, the birds have learned how to swerve to survive’ (pages 172-178).
The book makes the key recommendation that human organisations should embrace the principles of smart swarm decision-making. This decision-making process, as typified by honeybees, hinges on seeking a diversity of knowledge, encouraging a friendly competition of ideas, and using effective mechanisms to narrow down choices (page 43). The author shows how smart swarm ‘…harness the cognitive diversity of a group’ to make the best decisions (page 59), and how they finely tune their decision making processes to avoid mistakes (page 41). He asserts that human systems, heavily reliant on ‘expert-led analytics‘, are inferior to the ‘animal democracy‘ of smart swarms. He demonstrates this by several examples such as how honeybees who ‘…put aside their differences to reach a decision as a group’ (page 34). He illustrates how diversity and collective knowledge aid decision-making in some human systems such as prediction markets; these markets ‘…are good at pulling together information that may be widely scattered throughout a corporation’ (page 48).
The author makes a strong case that smart swarm behaviour may help human organisations to improve their efficiency and prevent system failure. Termite behaviour may teach electric power grids, and other highly connected networks, a lesson in preventing cascade failures (page 111). Locusts on the other hand may demonstrate how to improve crowd and traffic control, and avoid stampedes (page 234). In arguing his case, the author discusses several relevant smart swarm concepts. These include ‘adaptive mimicking’, by which flocks of birds respond to their environment to change their behaviour (page 162), and ‘collective vigilance’, important in social networks (page 200).
The author supports his arguments with the research work of influential leaders in the field such as the biologist Steve Simpson who studies the transition of locusts to ‘marauding plagues’ (page 234). He refers to the works of Bert Holldobler and E.O. Wilson on insect societies (page xviii); of Deborah Gordon on ant behaviour (pages 1-3); and Thomas Seeley and Kirk Visscher on honeybees (page 34). He signposted readers to key books on decision-making and social networks such as The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, and Connected by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler (page 214). The book is sprinkled with several interesting anecdotes, such as how honeybees use a ‘waggle dance‘ to make important choices, or to communicate relevant information (page 36).
This very interesting book thoroughly explores how human societies could benefit by subscribing to some animal behaviours. It discusses many thought-provoking concepts in a refreshing writing style. The author extols several practical and efficient smart swarm processes, and he recommends these to human organisations. The book makes the very appealing suggestion that bureaucratic human structures could become more efficient by adopting smart swarm strategies. Whilst the author quotes irreproachable scientific research on animal behaviour, he offers only anecdotal evidence to show that human societies could successfully adopt these. The ideas he proposes are however entirely reasonable, and have the potential to improve healthcare management.
The idea that humans could learn from animal behaviour is novel and exciting. This concept of fully self-organised human systems will however seem threatening to many organisations. Several of the key concepts underlying self-organisation, such as open decision-making, are however laudable. The book addresses the stifling bureaucratic nature of many human systems, including healthcare, and it advocates guidelines which promise to improve this. I recommend the book unreservedly to all doctors.
Publisher, Place, Year: Collins, London, 2010
Number of chapters: 5
Number of pages: 283
Rating: 5 stars