An age old debate in design is that of whether the form we create as humans is natural or not and therefore somehow a better fit for purpose. Yet so much of what we create as designers is a new construct – think of a basic flint knife for example that one of our ancestors might have used – is that natural? There’s even an movement within art and design called ‘biomorphism’, meaning inspired by nature. Marc Newson and Phillippe Stark are two notable examples in the product design realm. But when it comes to groups of people, what is natural? Are gangs natural? Is the way we work today with our 9-5 jobs, working lunches, staff rotation schemes, elaborate appraisal systems etc. normal? Or to ask the question in a different way, are they optimal? If we wanted the answer to these questions where might we look for inspiration? Our direct ancestors? Or further back? What about apes, or bees for that matter?
Bees are particularly interesting because of their highly successful ability to organise complex social interactions without any command and control. They facilitate community defence, environmental control, food production and manufacturing, reproduction and rearing. And they do this all without big brains to help them out, but how I hear you ask? If you study bee colony behaviour you find that bees follow complex shared social behaviours that help to coordinate the group’s different activities.
It’s not know exactly how, but we do know that Bees organise according to a herd response to social and group interactions and environmental triggers such as predators rather than being governed by the Queen Bee as has often been suggested. Communication happens almost like a mexican wave in a stadium, carried by changes in hormones that are passed on via two channels: Vibration Signal, literally where one bee grabs the other and does the shake (thought to cause the other bee to change activity state) and Worker Piping which is where the bee buzzes its wings intensely (thought to indicate it’s time to fly).
One lesson that we can learn from the way bees accomplish self-organisation without big brains is by adopting shared organisational principles (such as how to respond to threats, share labour etc) which enables the herd to work seamlessly without a single leader or hierarchy. One of the challenges of course that comes with having big brains is that we possess individual thought, complicating the issue of self-organisation. Yet still we can find parallels in human society for self-organisation.
Self–organising systems aren’t new to humans, we’ve been doing it for millennia, but as humans evolved, so did our concept of the idea of organisations. You could argue that Wikipedia is an example of a self-organising system. Jimmy Wales describes the organising structure in this excerpt:
“In part Wikipedia is anarchy. Really, no one is in control of the content, its up to people to sort it out for themselves. That also means it is a meritocracy: the best ideas should win out. In part, it is democracy because some things do get voted on. There is also an element of aristocracy: people who have been involved in the community longer, who have acquired a reputation have a higher standing in the community. And then there is monarchy – that’s me – but I try to get involved as little as possible.”