What can bees teach us about effective collaboration?

Matteo Menapace

Unless you live in denial, you’ve heard that the climate is changing and the Earth and oceans are warming because of humans. While world leaders are sitting on the laurels of the 2015 Paris Agreement and procrastinating, Mission2020 and Swarm brought together a mix of concerned humans from across sectors to cook up new ways of talking about climate change. New stories, new tactics to instigate behavioural change and start the transition towards a fossil-free economy (and a more egalitarian society, but that’s for another post).

I had the honour to participate in this swarm camp. In this post I’m going to share some sketchy impressions, while I’m still brewing more articulate thoughts. I’ll focus on how this human swarm compares to my understanding of a bee swarm, and leave climate change considerations for another post.

Camping and swarming for humans.

What on Earth is a swarm camp, I hear you asking?

Camping = set camp out of your comfort zone

Let’s start from the easy part, the camp. Away from home, away from your urban routine, away from familiar faces and noises, immersed in a place of human and natural balance. In that state you’re both vulnerable and inspired. Open to challenge your beliefs and explore new ideas. Camping brings you closer to the idea of survival, even if it’s luxury camping near Cambridge UK.

Picture by Owen

What brought me and another 60 brilliant minds in this camp was very much linked to our survival as a civilised society: climate change. How do we talk about climate change so that instead of alienating people (it’s too distant, too abstract, too huge a problem, not my problem, etc.) we can inspire them to take action and deliver a global turning point by 2020? The swarm would explore answers to this and other corollary questions: who are we talking to, specifically? What are we asking them to do? Why should they listen? Also, what about the money?

Swarming = collective intelligence on a shared mission

This camp has been organised by Swarm, a company that likes to tackle big challenges by bringing together individuals from various silos and guiding them through a process of creative collaboration.

I jumped into this swarm camp enthusiastically, not only because it was highly recommended by John, or because I’m concerned about climate change, but mostly because I am personally interested in bee swarms (currently reading Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Seeley). I wanted to experience a human swarm and longed to be part of a collective intelligence effort.

Picture by yours truly

Humans vs bees

Every year, honeybees face a survival challenge: as the hive becomes overpopulated, a third of it stays behind and rears a new queen, while a swarm of thousands departs with the old queen to start a new hive. What’s fascinating about bee swarms is the collective decision-making process that precedes the colonisation. As Seeley illustrates in Honeybee Democracy, it starts with fact-finding.

  1. Success criteria
    A handful of older worker bees stop foraging flowers and get a new job: to spot candidates for new nests. These nest-scouting bees have very specific criteria to evaluate potential new homes, such as volume, size of entrance and distance from the ground. In other words, they have clear success metrics.
  2. Protocol
    Once a scout bee finds a place that meets at least some of those success criteria, it flies back to the swarm and shares its insights. Through the waggle dance bees communicate to their sisters both the location of the nest candidate (angle of the dance routine for direction, and dance loops for distance), and their opinion about it (enthusiasm of their dancing moves). I know, they are amazing! Would you have thought that these tiny insects have also developed a protocol to share complex information?
  3. Democracy
    A swarm usually evaluates between 10 and 20 candidates, and the final decision is taken democratically. That is, every bee in the swarm gets to participate in the process, as it’s free to scout for nests or campaign for known candidates. Unlike human democracies, where first-past-the-post type of decisions are more common, bees spend some time and energy to build a consensus around one candidate, and most of the time they get it right. Individual bees may change opinions several times throughout the process, as there isn’t a single election moment and there isn’t tribalism or party loyalty: they are all in it together.

How does this compare to the human swarm I experienced?

Our swarm was way more diverse than a bee swarm. We were definitely not “daughters of the same queen” even though most of us would be classified under the same ethnic group or social class.

The ritual group photo

What makes us different are our experiences, the silos we work in. Team Swarm brought together a mix of people at the intersection between business and activism: climate change campaigners, business innovators, designers, cultural influencers, artists, storytellers, data analysts, policy geeks. Check the list, it’s impressive. A big challenge we faced throughout the swarm, because of this diversity, was that we didn’t have a shared language. Several times I got lost in acronyms, wishing we had some sort of waggle dance. On the other hand, Team Swarm put a lot of effort into celebrating our shared humanity, and creating a platform for everyone to respectfully contribute. There were no designated leaders in the teams we formed, for example. The protocol was so light we almost didn’t feel there was one.

During the introductory presentations Tom asked us to put our “hands up if you consider yourself an introvert / extrovert”. It was the first fast-paced-collaborative event I’ve experienced where someone acknowledged that we work and recharge ourselves differently. There was a constant swing between solo moments (silently reflecting on ideas and writing feedback), working in small groups (for instance, to prepare a pecha-kucha presentation on our reflections and discussions) and sharing with everyone else. Being an introvert, I enjoyed those quiet moments when you could hear the scribbling of sharpies on post-its, and the group meditations, but I also felt comfortable enough to share a personal story in an improvised open-mic stunt (a couple of glasses of Sicilian organic red helped too). Thanks Team Swarm for creating the conditions where all this can happen.

Two days followed of intense discussions and frantic idea-forming, interspersed with play and great food. I left feeling both re-energised by the passion of my fellow swarmers, and overwhelmed by the sheer volume of new insights to process. I met amazing people and learned so much, but I’m not sure (yet) what results we achieved. What exactly were our success metrics? While we had broader goals than the honeybees, what we can learn from them is that a simple, shared goal and a clear set of success criteria help to effectively channel the swarm energy. That way we can produce meaningful and tangible results. What could that look like? We start by discussing potential success metrics and envisioning success, before we swarm away.

On the other hand, this was the first of many Mission2020 swarms to come. In Dan’s own words, it was a big immersion […] into the issues and plans for Mission2020, to understand the different perspectives and scenarios on climate action. It was the first push to get the big boulder rolling. Team Swarm collected everything we produced and already started making sense of it. Dan says there’s some strong directions and loads of learning emerging. I can’t wait to be a part of what happens next!


Hey, you made it this far, thanks! Were you part of this swarm? Or maybe you took part in a similar swarm of humans before and you have some ideas to share? Pop your thoughts in the comments below.

Matteo Menapace

Written by

Encoding and decoding playful learning experiences. Resident game designer at the V&A vam.ac.uk/info/residencies#in-residence

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