Thursday, July 26, 2007

Swarm Theory

Have you ever wondered how it is that a school of fish or a flock of pigeons can seemingly "turn on a dime?" or how ants seem to be able to almost instantly find sweet juice spilled on the sidewalk? The key is what is being called swarm intelligence or swarm theory.

Swarm Theory is the term used to describe the corporate intelligent behaviour of groups (swarms) of living things. Even though the individual member of a swarm may be unintelligent, the behaviour of the entire swarm is able to do things almost unimaginable and with a complexity and intelligence that is hard to fathom. It has been observed (and now extensively studied) in bees, ants, birds and fish and as a result, the concepts learned are being implemented in business, social science and in the military.

National Geographic online has an article on it here written by Peter Miller. Basically the premise is that a single ant or bee isn't smart, but their colonies are. The study of swarm intelligence is providing insights that can help humans manage complex systems, from truck routing to military robots, with very simple decisions and actions.

It is all based on simple and localized communication systems - one ant "communicates" with the ant next to it (usually through smell by touching antennae) and acts on the information it receives. The information is usually very simple, like "I have found food - follow my path to the food and get it." The action is equally simple: "Go get the food" or if there is no food found "Go find food."

There are a number of basic goals or values seemingly "hardwired" into the ants - like colony survival, knowledge about what food is best, ability (willingness) to do any job necessary, etc. Of course insects don't have those enduring human qualities like rebellion or laziness and thinking capacity which means it is much harder to apply this "organic" system of work to humans.

However the article suggests a number of applications, like supply/delivery routes, military robots, etc. I'm more interested in the how an organic system might be applied to church growth or discipleship or extending the Kingdom of God. What if we were all "hardwired" to the Holy Spirit (which we are) and could all listen to His instructions on a moment to moment basis (which we can) and then obeyed quickly (which we sometimes have a hard time doing)? We would have swarm theory in action accomplishing divine results. However, we tend not to trust such a system because we don't really trust other Christians to hear God without the infallible guidance of their pastor or denominational executive. I think that's how the church in China grew so quickly. I think that is how the early church grew so quickly.

I think this may just be how the church will again thrive in our post-Christendom world - by getting smaller, more nimble and responsive, and able to adapt to, and transform its context quickly and effectively.

Just thinking out loud - what do you think?

By the way - I picked up that link to National Geographic from Alan Hirsch's blog forgotten ways. And do read the article at National Geographic - it's five pages but worth the read.

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