What is Swarm Intelligence?

Have you ever watched a large flock of birds or a school of fish? Notice how they all tend to synchronize their movements? It can be mesmerizing to see how a large group of animals moves together. Scientists have a name for it — Swarm intelligence. Isn’t it unfortunate that we can’t do the same thing?

Actually, we can. For us, swarm intelligence simply describes how people are able to spontaneously work together in an emergency. It’s when our actions become more instinctual and emotional rather than deliberate. An excellent example is the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. In that instance, everyone cooperated toward a common goal — figure out how the disaster had happened and find the people responsible. This included politicians at all levels and public-safety responders from multiple jurisdictions. The reaction went so smoothly that the U.S. Senate held hearings on what could be learned from the experience.

Researchers with the Harvard National Preparedness Leadership Initiative also studied the response. They found swarm intelligence can unite all the group’s participants to create a synergy that multiplies individual capabilities. They identified five elements necessary for swarm intelligence to work.

Unity of purpose: knowing the real goal; in Boston, it was saving lives and finding the bomber.

Adoption of a spirit of generosity: wanting to help others succeed

“Staying in your lane”: respecting the authority and expertise of others

“Checking your ego at the door”: declining to seek credit or assign blame

Interpersonal trust and respect: an emergency is not a good time to first meet the people you need to work with.

I know from personal experience what can be accomplished when everyone works together. We need to remember this more than ever as we strive to overcome the current pandemic crisis.

Taken from “What Should Crisis Leadership Look Like?” by Douglas Starr (https://www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-inquiry/what-should-crisis-leadership-look-like?)

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