August 29, 2010

Smart swarms

Social insects like ants, bees and termites and flocks of birds, schools of fish and herds of caribou distribute problem solving among many individuals. The often beautiful and amazing patterns of these groups of animals don't come from pre-existing blueprints or designs but they emerge from the bottom up as a result of interaction among the many individuals of the group. Here is an example:


The amazing thing is, and this goes somewhat against our human intuition, there is no centralized hierarchy and control whatsoever in such swarms. The individuals just act out their very simple task or rules and respond to their local circumstances. They repeatedly interact with many other members of the swarm and have no oversight or awareness of the total picture. They are very simple participants in the process; they don't know why they do what they do, they just do it. The swarm itself however is highly intelligent. It is, as it were, one enormous organism consisting of the many individual organisms which interact with each other. A group of ants is so smart that it can find, in very little time, the shortest route to something sweet you dropped on the kitchen floor. The swarm also can find out very fast that a predator is near and respond appropriately. Bees can find a wonderful place to build their hive by swarm intelligence. Flocks of birds and schools of fish can respond amazingly fast when a predator approaches them. Within apparently no time the group has collectively ducked away.

Human beings are, of course very different from the animals mentioned. In comparison with them, we are extremely intelligent and aware. Sometimes we perform as a swarm, for instance, when we are giving a standing ovation in the theatre. But often we are acting very individually as well. Does swarm intelligence have any relevance and usefulness for us, for instance in the way we do our work and run our companies? Indeed. In the new book The smart swarm, author Peter Miller gives many examples of how swarm intelligence has been applied to improve decision making, planning and other kinds of problem solving. For instance, by making computer programs simulating a group of ants, large companies have found ways to improve their logistic process and also their production process, thereby saving many millions of dollars annually.

My questions to you are: what applications do you see for swarm intelligence in your work? What connection do you see between the solution-focused approach and swarm intelligence? 


  1. There is an application very similar to this swarm thing here in my country.

    Somebody started an initiative to clean up the country in one day. There are a lot of waste products (like empty plastic bottles and such) in various locations. The first thing they did was to recruit the help of volunteers to map the positions of the garbage and now they are building small teams of 5-10 people to attack the locations. They mapped 3841 piles of garbage so far with almost no funding, just by volunteers going by bike around their areas. The big clean-up will happen on 25th of September.

    As for the connection between SFC and swarm intelligence, I guess it is related to the Not Knowing Posture. Solutions emerge in swarms out of local situations. Solutions emerge in SFC out of local (time and place) situations.

  2. Personally i believe humans in fact are like e.g. Bees. The same swarm theorie applies. But "simply" is not that visible in our eager for personal identity and personal gain. In the end we need each other to be informed and to survive. Not that different from ants/bees. Even better i believe we can learn a lot from the decision making model from ants. It is just a matter of years before our decision making is no longer based on long lead times and latency information. For sure organizations will be more and more confronted by intelligence led competition, the decision making model will change towards real time based on situational awareness and information dominance. In order to find the shortest path to new food.

    The key to success lies within brought understanding the tolerances for good enough solutions (= not the optimal) and for sure not in the fact that the solution is already known. We know the goal / reason but not the solution. therefore it is maybe goal focused vs. solution focused.

    Anyhow this is real food for thought and yet it seems simple and normal behavior. Maybe we (humans) drifted far away from our nature.

    BR, Herman Bosker


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