An essential part of survival as a species is cooperation. In nature, there are many amazing examples of collaboration resulting in increased welfare of the whole. However, “smart swarms” are not limited to ants and honey bees. They can be used very effectively in many social and business situations we face every day.
The whole concept of “diversity of information,” and its apparent advantages over individual smarts (1) is one example of a way collaboration could be implemented in the classroom or board room. In general, this would mean encouraging students to actively bounce ideas off one another in an attempt to solve problems requiring critical thinking skills. Research has found that by weighing the ideas put forth by various individuals, group mates are better able to come to logical, intuitive, and creative solutions than if they had done so individually. This is akin to the way honey bees “house hunt,” wherein scouts go out looking for new locales in which to build nests, then relay this logistical information to other scouts which in turn check out the potential new home and report back. This method prevents any one bee (or person, in the above example) from dominating decision making (2).
Another important aspect of natural smart swarms that should be incorporated into our everyday lives is the concept of adaptability. Adaptability simply means that, while it may be wise to plan for many inevitabilities, you will never be able to forsee everything that comes your way. It is imperative that you are able to quickly adapt (especially in the workplace) when changes arrive. Deborah Gordon details the amazing adaptability (and self-organizing capacities) of ants in the Ted talk featured in this module. At one point she placed toothpicks near the entrance of the ants’ nest and monitored what happened. She observed a greater recruitment of “maintenance” ants, which led to a subsequent decrease in the frequency of other job types (3). They were able to efficiently adapt and collaborate to tackle this new impediment to their job. If only your coworkers could be this helpful!