When it comes to stigmergy the starlings have us beat

I’m not interested in strategy. Strategy is boring. There are decades worth of thinking from some of the best minds and still we don’t know how to achieve things in a coordinated fashion through top-down command and control.

Stigmergy. Now that’s interesting. Stigmergy is how ant’s nest coordinate collecting food without any means of hierarchical communication. It’s how flocks of starlings fly fast and close without crashing into each other. Stigmergy relies on few simple patterns of behaviour with changes in those behaviours communicated through signals from and to everyone.

If one starling spots a hawk and thinks the flock should fly away from it, that starling doesn’t send a message to a single leader starling who then makes a decision which is communicated through defined chains of command and communication channels. If that was how starlings did it, the one that spotted the hawk would be the hawk’s lunch while waiting for that instruction to change direction. Instead, the starling turns to fly away from the hawk but still follows the rule of not crashing into any other starling. Other nearby starlings see that starling getting too close and so change direction also. And so the change ripples through the flock and they all avoid the hawk. They each detected the signal and followed simple rules in deciding how to respond to it.

Perhaps social media provides an example of how we humans detect signals from across our complex and interconnected ecosystem. But there are three problems with using social media in this way. Firstly, signals are not treated equally. The algorithms that drive these systems are designed to maximise engagement which almost always means showcasing negative signals and downplaying positive signals. Secondly, human behaviour, although predictable, doesn’t follow simple patterns. And thirdly, because of our history of relying on the idea of strategy, the typical human response is to look to the centralised leadership for solutions and directions. So maybe that’s too big an arena for thinking about how people might use stigmergy effectively.

But I struggle to find an example of where humans have come even close to implementing stigmergy within a smaller defined group such as a business or community organisation. Even in small groups, the implicit agreement about how the group decides on actions for everyone is for someone in the group to detect the signal that prompts the need for change, communicate that to the group, the group decides as a whole on what action should be taken, and then the action is implemented. Even the smallest, and so presumably most able to communicate quickly and respond to change, groups of people would be hawk food.

We might just have to accept that when it comes to responding quickly to change, the starlings have us beat.