Book Review: Smart Swarm – Using Animal Behaviour to Change our World


Smart Swarm is written by Peter Miller who is a senior editor of National Geographic. In his book Miller asks the question ‘What can we humans learn from the intelligent behaviour observed in nature, and in particularly in the complex, chaotic, bewildering, bamboozling and often enchanting and breathtaking displays of ants, termites, bees, starlings, fish and locusts. The answer it would seem, would be an awful lot, as suggested by Don Tapscott in the foreword:

Loosening organisational hierarchies and giving more power to employees can lead to faster innovation, lower cost structures, greater agility, improved responsiveness to customers, and more authenticity and respect in the marketplace.

While there have been many scientific books on the subject such as Stuart Kauffman’s At Home in the Universe and Signs of Life – How Complexity Pervades Biology by Richard Solé and Brian Goodwin, and there have been many books in the general area of complexity science and chaos theory which have become global best-sellers, there have been far fewer written for the layperson, and especially those in business looking for inspiration to develop new business models or solve complex organisational issues such as logistics, crowd control, customer boarding of planes, power grid management and group decision making to name just a few areas Smart Swarm covers.

Miller divides his book into a number of chapters, which focus on one particular type of behaviour seen in swarms, flocks and schools. This allows him to examine the main lessons which he divides into self-organisation, seeking a diversity of knowledge in decision making (avoiding groupthink), indirect collaboration (and decentralised control), adaptive mimicking . Miller’s analysis is clear, precise and always engaging, and so we learn how in ant colonies, a large number of individuals without supervision can accomplish complex tasks when they meet and interact just by following a few simple rules; we learn that ants are also able to solve logistical problems through ingenious solutions, problems that we humans struggle with even with access to a huge amount of computational power; we learn how honeybees are able to make optimal decisions which are critical to their survival through a “friendly competition of ideas”.

We also learn how by paying close attention to those around us, just as starlings are able to do, we can make decisions rapidly in times of uncertainty. However, as seen in the study of the dark side of collective behaviour, the destructive tendencies of locusts, we also can learn how to mitigate against following the crowd uncritically, getting caught up in fads or financial schemes.

Miller then provides many different examples in human society which have either been directly inspired by modelling swarm behaviour, or which reflect the key principles. For example:

  • Southwest Airlines developed a new method for allocating seats to passengers based on modelling ants.
  • Air Liquide used a model based on ant behaviour developed at Santa Fe Institute to reduce logistic and transport costs by around $20 million.
  • Just as termite mounds are self-healing, Electric Power Reserch Institute are examining the possibility of making the US electricity grid, the most complex man-made structure in the world, self-healing.
  • Employees at Best Buy predicted sales with 99.5% accuracy, 5% more than experts.

For Miller there are two key lessons we can learn. The first is that by working together in smart groups, either very small and focussed or of a massive scale, we can lessen the impact of uncertainty, complexity and change. The second lesson is that in nature, good decision making comes as much from competition as much as from compromise, from a friendly form of disagreement as much as from consensus. The trick therefore is not to blindly copy one type of decision making tool or framework which copies one instance in nature, but to really attempt to make sense of the particular instance or issue and match that to the related way in which nature solves similar problems.

I can strongly recommend Smart Swarm to anyone who is interested in the areas of organisational development, business strategy, process design and problem solving. For those who wish to develop their interest further, I would then suggest reading The Nature of Business – Redesigning for Resilience by Giles Hutchins. Giles’ book is divided up into nine modules, and therefore offers a highly practical guide for then putting these insights from nature into practice in businesses and organisations.