Improving Sustainability with Swarm Intelligence?
A flock of birds is on the wing. Suddenly it seems to swoop to the ground – only then in the nick of time to stop and then soar off in another direction. We get the impression the swarm is one huge, single individual and not hundreds of birds.
How is this possible? What is the driving force within a flock of birds or a shoal of fish? What is steering them? Researchers have established three essential factors that enable animals to move in a swarm: they have to keep moving, keep their distance to their neighbours and maintain contact to the group. This behaviour helps the swarm to function as a single organism. When animals form a group like this they actually have quite a few advantages. As the swarm makes use of the knowledge of all its members, it is able to react faster and more intelligently to its environment than the animals as individuals could.
The secret of swarms
For many years now the secret of why swarms are so perfectly coordinated has been the focus of study for Prof. Jens Krause from the Humboldt University in Berlin and Prof. Stefan Krause from Lübeck University of Applied Sciences. With the aid of robot fish these two brothers made a revealing discovery – swarms are not guided by one single lead animal alone. “It is five to ten per cent of the group that determines the direction they move in,” says computer scientist, Stefan Krause. “When it comes to larger groups even five per cent would be enough.” Any member of the group can be one of the lead animals, if it has useful information and can act decisively enough.
One of the most exciting findings in the course of this research has been the fact that the swarming behaviour of animals can actually be transferred to people. The Krause brothers have observed groups of people in all kinds of situations, sometimes in pedestrian zones, sometimes in road traffic. Behavioural scientist Jens Krause said that in these situations swarm behaviour was easily recognisable. “When people cross the road at a traffic light, even though it is red, others automatically go with the flow without really wanting to.” The German TV science magazine Quarks & Co, produced by the WDR TV station, invited Jens Krause to carry out a spectacular experiment on the show, in which he was able to prove the following: the behaviour of a three-hundred-strong group of people in a hall at a trade fair corresponded exactly to the typical swarm behaviour of animals.
“More horizontal bonding” at corporate level
People orient themselves, either consciously or subconsciously, to the people around them. For example, in order to successfully evacuate a building in the event of a fire or danger, it would be enough, according to the researchers, if only five to ten per cent of the people had access to decisive information. Even huge masses of people at big events can be indirectly guided in this way. “This is how we manage to avoid mass panic scenarios like the Love Parade in Duisburg,” says Stefan Krause.
At a corporate level companies are also profiting from swarm research. Among them companies like Google, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and LEGO, along with the auto industry. “These companies have come to the conclusion that our environment has become too complex for just one person to make all the decisions.,” says Jens Krause. It was for this reason that some companies have already changed their management structure and are now orienting themselves to the swarm principle. “Just as it is within the swarm, there is a more intense communication between people working at the same level, which in turn leads to a better flow of information,” as the behavioural scientist explains. “There is more horizontal bonding.”
It is not only in the field of company organisation that businesses are benefiting from swarm research, but also in the areas of market prognosis and product development. How is a product going to sell? Designers, too, are also relying on it to predict trends. Stefan Krause also said that swarm intelligence worked particularly well when the destination or aim was not so well defined and he called swarm intelligence the “knowledge of the many”. “When dealing with a problem, a large group is able, with its assessment of the problem, to outperform individual experts. Even though every individual makes mistakes, these are able to be ironed out in the group.” For quite some time now many companies have been using prediction markets, a sort of virtual stock market that is more a source of fun for the users than an actual source of income. These platforms however enable predictions to be made that are based on the knowledge of many – exact, and therefore cost-efficient, business prognoses. When it comes to predicting the outcome of an election the results are often considerably more accurate than the opinion polls.
The companies also see the enormous potential of their employees in this context – after all each individual employee has a different wealth of knowledge to offer. This joint tackling of a problem often leads to impressive results. “Companies have realised that it makes sense to sacrifice a little control,” says Jens Krause. “After all, if the assessments of many individuals goes into the decision-making process, we will be able to react much faster to changes in our environment.”
is an online editor and works as a free-lance journalist in Munich. Her focus is on science, religion and social matters.
Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
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