Can Swarm Intelligence Take Over Our Government?

It Took Over the Oscars and the Boston Marathon Bombing; Can It Save the U.S Political System Too?

Listening to Jimmy Kimmel explain the Academy Awards Best Picture fiasco, I was struck by how what began as chaos evolved into what people in academia call “swarm intelligence.”

And I found myself wondering whether there is a way we can nurture at least a little swarm intelligence in our US politics and government in the months ahead.

Bees Do It, Ants Do It

Swarm intelligence is most widely observed in lower rungs of the animal kingdom. Via some mysterious communications process, ants and honeybees build elaborate ant colonies or produce honey, adapting to changing environments as needed to preserve the collective. (You can read a great article on this topic here).

Swarm Intelligence and the Boston Marathon Bombing

Increasingly researchers have come to recognize that humans also use “swarm intelligence.” A couple of years ago, for example, Barry Dorn and Leonard Marcus, two experts at Harvard’s public health school, elegantly described how “swarm intelligence” took over following the Boston Marathon bombing.

In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, which killed three and injured hundreds, police from multiple jurisdictions, the FBI, Homeland Security and other organizations came together with a minimum of conflict. Working together with the communities of Boston, Cambridge, Watertown and other nearby municipalities they caught the bombers in an intense 100-hour manhunt that included a multi-jurisdiction shelter-in-place order that lasted most of a day.

No One Is Really In Charge in a Swarm

Months later, when the Harvard researchers asked everyone from Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to Boston’s Police Commissioner Ed Davis who was in overall command of the operation, the answer was “not any one person really.” Rather, swarm intelligence and “collective leadership” had kicked in.

“Swarm intelligence” successfully led a 100-hour manhunt following the Boston Marathon bombing.

Five Elements of Successful Swarm Intelligence

According to Dorn and Marcus, there are five elements that make swarm intelligence possible and successful:

· Unity of mission

· Generosity of sprit and action

· Deference for the responsibility and authority of others

· Refraining from grabbing credit or hurling blame and

· A foundation of trusting relationships.

Swarm intelligence emerged in the midst of this year’s Academy Awards best picture announcement debacle as well, and looking through the lens of these five elements, it’s not hard to understand why.

‘Someone’ Will Clear This Up

Although he was the show’s host, Jimmy Kimmel was sitting in the audience with Matt Damon when the erroneous announcement occurred.

“ You figure, well, you know, the host will go on stage and clear this up,” Kimmel recollected later, describing the kind of response most anyone would have as a disaster large or small unfurls before their eyes.

“And then I remembered, oh! I’m the host!” Kimmel recalled with a laugh.

Leadership — and a Generous Spirit

But Kimmel was a comedian, not a leader in disaster preparedness. With Kimmel physically out of position, Jordan Horwitz, a producer of La La Land, found his voice and announced that Moonlight was the true winner. As the Washington Post noted, that night Horwitz became the closest thing to a folk hero the Oscars has ever seen.

As Horwitz explained later, the people involved in both movies had spent a fair bit of time getting to know each other on the awards circuit over the prior few months. This, one might say, enabled the handoff to the true winners to occur with a generosity of spirit and action — one of the hallmarks of swarm intelligence.

Warren Beatty for his part took over the leadership emcee role briefly to explain the origins of the problem without hurling blame, another hallmark of swarm intelligence

A Unity of Mission

Unity of mission — yet a third hallmark of swarm intelligence — kicked in as the camera crew and show producer took their cue from Horwitz and zeroed in on the award card he displayed so that the millions watching could realize the truth.

That unity of mission continued as Kimmel, now back on stage, took direction from Denzel Washington who, from the front row of the audience, was urging Kimmel to get Moonlight director Barry Jenkins up to the podium. Kimmel later acknowledged that it was thanks to Denzel’s quick thinking that Jenkins and the cast had the opportunity to enjoy the most important achievement of their careers.

Ultimately Kimmel regained control of the event, and the audience deferred to his leadership role as emcee to close the show with a more or less happy conclusion.

The directors of La La Land (Damien Chazelle) and Moonlight (Barry Jenkins) discussed their own competitive spirits — and their ability to care for and respect each other — with Variety in the days after the snafu.

Can Swarm Intelligence Save Government Now?

Which raises the question: Is there a role for “swarm intelligence” in our civic lives in the Donald Trump era? If it can happen in the movies, can it happen in real life?

Is it possible for life to imitate the movies — or at least an awards show honoring the movies?

At the moment, that seems unlikely, as three of the qualities critical to the kind of swarm intelligence that leads to successful outcomes are in short supply.

· Generosity of sprit and action;

· Refraining from grabbing credit or hurling blame; and

· A foundation of trusting relationships.

If the science of swarm intelligence is any guide. the current environment will likely block our ability to work together successfully should a big calamity befall our nation.

Is there anything to be done?

Nurturing the Swarm

There are tremendous risks to being the first to stand down from the toxic rhetoric that fills our political discourse today. That rhetoric — and litigation or legislation, depending on your point of view — are the only tools by which people get their agenda to move forward right now.

But we must also realize that the risks are tremendous if we cannot find some way to work together on something. The environment that makes swarm intelligence possible in times of calamity must be re-created among Congress and at the grassroots if we have any hope of getting through the next four years — and if we are to have any hope of overcoming a major disaster if it should befall our country.

But how does that happen?

Is it totally unreasonable to expect Congress, and us at the grassroots level, to begin building a generosity of spirit — even perhaps if only around one or two issues — to create a unity of mission that unites the left and the right in common purpose around SOMETHING?

This isn’t asking for agreement on healthcare or immigration. It’s merely asking to begin building a unity of spirit around something so that, if, god help us, something like 9/11 or an attack by North Korea were to occur, we might have some chance of working together like the agencies in Boston following the Marathon bombing– or like Denzel, Jimmy, Warren, Jordan and Barry did at the Academy Awards.

Find Common Ground, Build Relationships

Perhaps members of Congress could begin by spending time together with members of the other party. Have dinner. Talk about each other’s families and favorite movies, rather than remaining in the echo chambers of each party’s making. Focus on each other as human beings with lots in common, rather than as idealogues in a war to the death.

Maybe the Democrats could then try to find common cause with Republicans and introduce a bipartisan bill on something that people care about and around which there is less contention. Perhaps an infrastructure bill that creates jobs? That would truly be news at CNN!

And here’s an even nuttier idea: Perhaps the next time Trump supporters or detractors consider organizing a public rally, they could also see if members of a nearby church would help them organize a potluck meal on a different day and time to which people from both ends of the political spectrum would be invited to break bread. Peacefully.

For those of us thick in the middle of hailing or protesting the moves of a Trump presidency, the suggestion of reaching out to the other side, of dialing back the rancor, is extremely uncomfortable.

The current environment dictates that for you to be a winner, I must be a loser.

But as the Academy Awards showed us this year, there needn’t be a huge difference between winners and losers. And our nature to swarm can save the day.

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