Smart Swarm: popular science book on emergence meets business-advice book

Peter Miller's The Smart Swarm: How Understanding Flocks, Schools, and Colonies Can Make Us Better at Communicating, Decision Making, and Getting Things Done is half popular science book, half business book, covering one of my favorite subjects: emergent phenomena, such as the way that ants find optimal routes to food sources.

Emergence is a cool, weird, poorly understood and extremely relevant subject. The study of emergence and complexity has helped businesses solve problems from optimizing telecommunications links to loading and unloading airplanes to reducing traffic jams in major cities, and it's impossible to understand tragedies from stampedes in busy stadiums to economic collapse without it.

Miller does a good job of surveying the recent and classic literature on emergence and complexity, as well as the more interesting experiments and illuminating real-world applications in human society, from optimizing Boeing's supply chain to redesigning the fatal Saudi bridge where hundreds of pilgrims to Mecca died in a stampede.

The material is cast as news-you-can-use, as Miller tries to make the connection between the way that complexity explains real-world phenomena and the daily running of businesses and other complex enterprises. This is the weakest part of the book: having read it, I didn't feel ready to jump out and redesign a company around fostering emergence -- but I was convinced that most businesses and other complex institutions would benefit from bringing in someone to interpret complexity theory and put it into practice.

The Smart Swarm: How Understanding Flocks, Schools, and Colonies Can Make Us Better at Communicating, Decision Making, and Getting Things Done

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  1. Will you send this to my boss? And my coworkers who outrank me, ask for my advice on “the internet” and “social marketing” but don’t take it?

  2. You might also want to check out Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software

    http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2296.Emergence

    This book is from 2002 but sounds like it may give a deeper treatment than Smart Swarms.

    Any other suggestions for people wanting to learn more about implementing strategies based on Emergence theory (other than hiring a consultant)?

  3. see ‘Self-organized criticality in complex systems’, Per Bak, Kan Chen (Sci Am, 1989?)…it’s the seminal paper on complexity, emergent criticality (e.g., the relationship between accumulating minor critical ‘events’ and the probability of a major event). Very informative and useful research.

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