Decision-Making in Animal Communities – Remodelling Global Cooperation

“There is a way,  if we allow ourselves to be guided by nature’s optimism and nature’s wisdom.”

Jay Harman, The Shark’s Paintbrush, p. 289.

In this blogpost, we will explore ways that nature can provide inspiration for The Global Challenges Prize 2017: A New Shape. We will focus the attention on swarm intelligence.

Bees use real-time negotiation to make decisions. Humans often have a less accurate approach to making predictions and to decision making. We use polls and votes, we polarise things.”Instead of finding common ground, they force us to entrench in predictions and make it harder for us to find the best answer for the group.” Louis Rosenberg

Organisations like the UN are getting bigger and this is problematic. Since the formation of the UN in 1945, the UN system, or the UN families, have added issues that they are dealing with, for example, sustainability and climate change.

You can see an interesting sketch below from 1943 by Franklin Roosevelt of the UN original three branches: The Four Policemen, an executive branch, and an international assembly of forty UN member states.


Photo By Franklin D. Roosevelt – Franklin D. Roosevelt Library & Museum, Public Domain,

“Organizations can’t keep growing the way we structure them today.”

Tamsin Wolley-Barker compares organisations to dinosaurs. Dinosaurs needed huge bones to support their weight and the more weight, the more bones, and the more weight. In the end, the dinosaurs were too big.

“In regards to relative bone strength, the larger animals are at a much greater risk of breaking their bones than the smaller animals. The likelihood that a broken bone will cut an animal’s life short is a strong possibility for the larger animals. This possibility of broken bones affecting the animal’s survival thus becomes a limitation on the size of the largest animals.” From “The problem with big dinosaurs.

Management is like a skeleton that supports an organisation so that it does not collapse. But when an organisation grows the cost of management is escalating, which could be problematic.

Also, a  more worrying trend when an organisation grows is that the ability to change quickly declines.

Nature uses hierarchies all the time as a way to prevent things from changing.  Animal societies have dominance hierarchy. However, research suggests that cooperation is impeded among chimpanzees as compared to cottontop tamarins. Chimpanzees live in steep and linear hierarchies in contrast to the more relaxed form of hierarchies that cottontop tamarins use.

Hierarchies may be important and there are ways to build a better hierarchy but if you want to build an organisation that can easily adapt to change, it is not an optimal structure. Hierarchies limits growth. Thus, to re-envision global governance for the challenges that face us in the 21st century, we need to develop new models.

Can animals provide any inspiration for new models of global cooperation?


Photo Subith Premdas

Teams of ants, termites or bees are often used as inspiration to explore how organisations work. Ants termites and bees are organisms with colonies consisting of sometimes millions of individuals. Yet together these work as a single organism. The labour is divided and one individual is helpless and cannot survive for long. By working together these organisms create abundance in harsh environments. They find a way of using things that often are overlooked by other creatures.

These animals use an open-ended structure that is dynamic and which allows them to quickly respond to changes in the environment. Yet, they lack a commander. They survive, or at least appears to, without making any forecasts and budgets. Instead, there is a smooth adaption to change, where all the individual creatures are contributing. The interactions between ants, termites and bees might be simple, nevertheless, together they can solve difficult problems.

Social insects have the following characteristics:

  • flexibility
  • robustness
  • self-organization

Social organisms can quickly adapt to change and even when one or more individuals in the group fail to achieve the task, the group can still perform the task. Finally, the activities performed by the group are neither centrally controlled nor or they locally supervised.

Using this approach to decision-making as inspiration to design global cooperation may indeed be a challenge.

A challenge, fun and above all perhaps a  necessary approach. We all know deep in our hearts that we face many problems. The future viability of our race is in danger. Nature constantly reinvents itself. We need to reinvent global cooperation with a similar irresistible optimism.


Photo By Neptuul – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Bio-Inspiration and Medical Innovations

Spiderman! The perfect example of stealing from nature. A spider’s web is used to catch criminals.

Jeff Karp is not a specialist, instead he has between twenty to twenty-five ongoing projects. A multidisciplinary approach to create biomaterials and devices for therapeutics.

The Karp Lab uses bio-inspiration to develop ideas. Their innovations do not mimic nature, biomimicry,  instead Jeff and his colleagues improve and develop ideas based upon nature.

Porcupine quills provided inspiration for developing better surgical staples (quills or spines are hair coated with plates of keratin). North American porcupines have around 30,000 quills. The quills have backward-facing sharp points, barbs, which means that they are very hard to remove from the skin. They catch on to tissues and create an enormous drag.  A staple was developed that had reduced penetration  force and increased pullout force.

Stekelvarken_Aiguilles_Porc-épicPorcupine quills

Another innovation that has been developed by the Karp Lab, is a battery that is child-safe. Every year thousands of children swallow small button-shaped batteries, these accidents are sometimes fatal. The battery has a special coating that prevents it from causing harm if swallowed by a child. A special coating on the battery ensures that electricity is only conducted when the battery is squeezed, for example, inside its spring-loaded compartment. Thus, the insulating coating makes the battery inactive and safe.

Many of the problems the health care world are facing are different from problems in nature. Nevertheless, inspiration for ideas can be found more or less anywhere. Jeff believes that innovations happens in the interface between different disciplines and bioengineers at the Karp Lab work together with other scientists and clinicians.

The real challenge is understanding the problem. So defining what the clinical and biological requirements are, is a vital starting point for any project.Limiations and drawbacks of existing technology as well as a risk calculation of what it takes to develop ideas are also vital components in the innovative process.

What to challenge yourself? You find a challenge about creative thinking and redefining a problem here.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Bacterial Lamp – Thinkibility Nibble

“I aim to create a living lamp that needs as little care as a houseplant.”

Teresa van Dongen

Have you ever watched a stretch of beach lit up by bioluminescent plankton? Glowing bioluminescent waves and organisms have been used as inspiration  and innovative solutions to human problems. The zero electricity lamp was designed by Design Academy Eindhoven graduate student Teresa van Dongen.

Thus, in this case a designer looked into the possibility of using biomimicry to create a lamp that glows with bioluminescent bacteria.  The invention was not from an engineer  nor  a biologist nor a technology or biology student . The idea to design a lamp came before the practicalities with using bacteria were explored.

This “upside down” approach is interesting for several reasons and we will explore this design process in more detail in the next blog post.


 The Ambio lamp is made of a  steel frame that holds a glass tube. The tube is filled with artificial seawater and bacteria from an octopus. The lamp glows when the bacteria are oxygenated, which is done by pushing the frame so that the lamp beings to rock. The technical aspects of this lamp may need some further researcher – the bacteria can only live about three days before they need to be replaced. Yet, this a step towards developing sustainable products for the home.

We have previously written about Blue Economy – an approach towards innovation where sustainability is the result of a production process that is integrated as an ecosystem – and  bioluminescence  and biomimicry. Have a look at this blog posts if you have not read them before.



Crowd Research

There are some fascinating developments which call for some “What If Thinking”.

Four technological developments

Nowadays more or less everyone is connected to someone via the Internet. It is assumed that any person can connect to another person via a friend of a friend, all it takes is six or fewer steps for anyone to be introduced to someone – it is a small world.

Stanley Milgram  explored the relationship in the Small World Experiment in 1967 and although the experiment have several weakness it is still a popular research topic. By the introduction of the Internet only Six Degrees of Separation are between you and  everyone on your mobile phone. Recent studies even suggest that the world has shrinked as a result of Social Networking such as Facebook and there may only be Three Degrees of Separation. We are and feel more connected to each other.


Soon all conceivable devices will also be connected. This means that a thousand physical quantities built-in (like length, or torque, or tensile strength, or clicks per impression), as well as nearly 10,000 units of measure (like inches, or meters per second or katals or micropascals per square root hertz) will be connected to the Internet.Those devices could be linked to a person  (a smart watch for instance), to a product or a process or linked to a GPS-position. If a standard exchange protocol, as proposed by the Wolfgang Connected Devices Project,  will be developed, a seamless integration of as many kinds of devices may be possible.

A third development is that we assume that the production costs of devices will be decreased by the use of nanotechnology and the trend of individuation of products will continue.  As a result of a reduction of production costs, several devices such equipments such as heart rate monitors, fitness equipment and  books,  are becoming more affordable for individual use. These items  were previously only available for organisations and groups, such as a hospital, gym or library,

A fourth development that will function as a kind of multiplier that will dramatically increase the mentioned developments. Manufacturers of devices will no longer offer a device plus its processor plus an infrastructure linked to that device. They will make use of the facilities the buyer already have. That is, a computer or a mobile phone, with all their data processing qualities and connections built-in. We will see that producers will adopt strategies that are derived from the biological concept of  symbiosis.

Crowd Research

Crowd research offers a great opportunity to explore possibilities and opportunities. Already we can see examples how those four developments or trends will interact and reinforce each other, especially what we call, by lack of better, Crowd Research

  •  SETI, a distributed computingproject in which volunteers donate idle computer power to analyze radio signals for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence.
  • In the Open-Source Bee Project a global set of sensors could give scientists new insight into the possible causes of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).  A cheap sensor could turn backyard beekeepers into an army of citizen-scientists
  • Zooniverse is a citizen science web portal owned and operated by the Citizen Science Alliance. The organization grew from the original Galaxy Zoo project and now hosts dozens of projects which allow volunteers to participate in scientific research. Zooniverse projects require the active participation of human volunteers to complete research tasks. Projects have been drawn from disciplines including astronomy, ecology, cell biology, humanities, and climate science. The Zooniverse community consisted of more than 1 million registered volunteers. The data collected from the various projects has led to the publication of more than 50 scientific papers.
  • eBird is an online database of bird observations providing scientists, researchers and amateur naturalists with real-time data about bird distribution and abundance.  eBird has been described as an ambitious example of enlisting amateurs to gather data on biodiversity for use in science. eBird is an example of treating citizens as scientists, allowing the public to access and use their own data and the collective data generated by others.
  • Tomnod took images gathered by their satellites and offered them to the public for viewing and identification in the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. 2.3 million people used the site to look for signs of wreckage, oil spills and other objects of interest. During the 2010 Haiti earthquake, OpenStreetMap and Crisis Commons volunteers used available satellite imagery to map the roads, buildings and refugee camps of Port-au-Prince in just two days, building “the most complete digital map of Haiti’s roads”

Emerging Crowd Research

We may speculate that the availability of cheap devices linked to mobile phones will increase crowd research exponentially in nearly every area of human activity.

The Quantified Self is a movement to incorporate technology into data acquisition on aspects of a person’s daily life in terms of inputs (e.g. food consumed, quality of surrounding air), states (e.g. mood, arousalblood oxygen levels), and performance (mental and physical). Such self-monitoring and self-sensing, which combines wearable sensors (EEGECG, video, etc.) and wearable computing. Quantified self is self-knowledge through self-tracking with technology. Quantified self advancement have allowed individuals to quantify bio-metrics that they never knew existed, as well as make data collection cheaper and more convenient. One can track insulin and Coriolis levels, sequence DNA, and see what microbial cells inhabit his or her body.

If the collected data are shared, imaging what hidden cause-effect relations will emerge foe example, between life style, geographical area, and food consumption. Architects could use the data to design better buildings, routes and cities. The data can be used to design office layouts that stimulates physical exercise. The data could be used to monitor healthy persons, which could lead to changes in medical science which is per definition based on ill people. It can be used to map the spreading of viruses. People could compare their work pace with others in the branch and in other branches. Scientific disciplines as psychology and sociology would be freed from unreliable research methods like interviews and questionnaires.

 What if dreams are massively recorded on a world scale? Do poor people dream about other things than rich people? Are Japanese dreams different from dreams in Africa? Shadow: Community of Dreamers, crowd financed with $82,500, wakes people up with an alarm, prompts them to anonymously describe their dreams, and beams those reports into a massive online set, where they can be searched and analyzed. Dreams are coded for age, sex, location, and time.  

What if there are cheap devices that measures the quality of tap water or swim water? What if people near Fukushima are no longer dependent on radiation levels from the government or TESCO because there is a cheap device that in combination with a mobile phone share information about radio activity? If many, many people have their own weather station and are plugged in a network, would it not enhance farming at a huge scale? What if anybody with a mobile phone could recognize a sought or missing person?

What if cars have an on-line device that measures the air quality, but also will display that level of air pollution at their rooftops ? Would it lead to “air pollution traffic control”? Wouldn’t it be confronting and provoke to action by citizens?

air quality

All cars have an indicator on their roof that shows the level of pollution: low, medium, too high

Ultimately, we may see an enormous democratising of information that till now has been  monopolised by institutions  and governments and, as history shows,  often a lot of data and information has been denied or hidden from civilians.

Symbiotic Biomimicry


Sustainability is an approach where we try to  create and maintain  conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony. But is the approach enough to make sure that we have and will continue to have water, materials and resources that can protect out health and the environment?

Innovations using symbiotic biomimicry as an inspiration offer a way to create symbiosis between humans and the environment. In this blog post will we explore a couple of examples. The term symbiosis  refers to a close and often long-term interaction between two or more different biological species. These relationships go both ways and a hermit crab which attaches a sea anemone to their shells to dissuade attackers benefits as so does the sea anemone which is able to get more food when they ride on the hermit crab’s shell through the water.

The underlying idea behind symbiosis has been used as inspiration for designing items such  as clothes and cars. It is has also been used as inspiration to design human industrial ecosystem.

The car below was introduced by JAC Motors. It uses a mobility solution called HEFEI (Harmonious Eco-Friendly Efficient Infrastructure). The idea behind the design was to make a car that offers a symbiosis between the vehicle and the environment. To power running vehicles, idle vehicles are used and a power grid supports the system. Automated traffic regulates itself, and this feature may help to reduce accidents, traffic jams. It may also lead to less energy being used while driving the car.


Symbiotic biomimicry can also be used as an inspiration for designing society. Sloths are mammals that hardly move, their leafy diet  does not provide them with enough energy do move around a lot. They have developed ways of conserving  energy. Sloths live in the warm tropical forest, they have low metabolic rate and they sunbathe high up in the canopy. But that is not all, sloths have also developed another way to keep warm. In their fur a whole ecosystem is living – there are  moths, beetles, cockroaches, fungi, and algae.The animals work together and exchange energy, nutrients.

The sloth’s fur can contain hundreds of animals and one sloth had 950 beetles living on it. Some species have evolved for million of years living together with the sloth and the sloth moth only lays eggs in sloth dung. The co-operation between organism means that everyone gains something and a sloth-like approach to design can be used to ensure that wastes used by one produces becomes food for another. Below is a sketch of the  Kalundborg Industrial Ecosystem in Denmark – an industrial symbiosis where a power plant, oil refinery, pharmaceutical plant, plaster-board factory, an enzyme manufacturer, farmers, a waste company and the city all trade and share byproducts and heat emissions.


Finally, an example from the fashion world and an Irish “green” design. Moss are sensitivity to changes in the atmosphere and they are dependent upon wet climates. When you wear a moss collar you become aware of how important these factors are for these soft plants. Tara Baoth Mooney’s moss collar engages the wearer through symbiotic biomimicry.
Does wearing a photosynthetic garment makes you feel more green and more importantly act more green?
Perhaps the answer becomes clear after watching the video below, which shows a person’s interaction with another human being and the environment. It is a visual and aural representation of symbiotic biomimcry through wearing a photosynthetic garment or accessory. I think the moss garment helps to increase awareness of my own place and role in the surroundings. Do you?

Photo Sean Michael/Epcoch, Kalundborg


Inspired by Beauty – Biomimicry


Richard Dawkins describes in the book Unweaving the Rainbow the relationship between biology and art. To understand science does not detract from the poetry of nature, and biomimicry can be described as one way of uncovering the poetry of nature. Nature and technology has often been described as opposite poles of a spectrum. Yet this division is breaking down, and aspects that can be regarded as dealing with beauty in nature can be used to design not only aesthetic looking technology but also highly useful technology.

Take for example, the irresistible  beauty of butterfly wings – look at the colours of Morpho butterfly. The tiny wings are complex structures that reflect light in such a way that specific wavelengths interfere with each other to create intensely vivid colors one could only find in nature.


A security badge has been created inspired by the wings and the image is not a hologram, instead it consists of billions of nano-scale holes. The minuscule holes reflect and transmit light in a distinctive way making this badge difficult to copy, which is the main objective when designing a security badge.  Yet the pattern is easy to recognize. No inks or dyes have been used in this badge, which has been developed by Nanotech Security Corp.

The KolourOptik nanotechnology, with a resolution of 50,000 dpi (dots per inch), has been developed and this technique may lead to new uses such as for credit cards and passports. In the future, even banknotes may be designed with this technique.

This example illustrates not only the power of exploring nature to develop innovations and gain inspiration for new ideas. It also illustrates how limited our search for inspiration actually is and how easy it is to judge research and ideas as having little value. For years, biology research  into the structure on the gecko’s foot or the structural colours in butterflies was “ignored” by technologists. Today, an approach where experts from different fields are working together is increasingly becoming more common.

What ideas do you get when you think about the colours of butterfly wings and apply it to your area of expertise?

Photo Linden Gledhill, You can see more of his stunning macros here.

Innovations Inspired by Nature

Glow road

Attempts to close the gap between technology and nature has led to the creation of a range of innovative ideas. Bio-mimicry is an approach where nature’s principles provide inspiration to create things in a similar way that nature has spent years and years perfecting.

Glowstone is a mixture of synthetic aggregate, inspired by bioluminescence. When the pebbles are exposed to light sources, the photoluminescent pigment becomes chemically excited and will afterglow.  This product enhances safety in ares were there is little light and the effects is most pronounced in dark areas.

Innovation relies on creating new links and linking a fruit to electricity may seem strange. Yet pomegranates have inspired researchers at Stanford University  to design a supercharged anode battery. The design of this battery is still undergoing changes so you cannot purchase it yet but it is an exciting step towards new battery design thinking.


The  unique seed design of the pomegranate was used to create to a battery that can store 10 times more charge than a standard rechargeable lithium-ion battery. The silicon anodes (a battery’s negative electrodes) are clustered like pomegranate seeds, and the anodes are encased in carbon shells that conduct electricity. Graphite anodes are also grouped in clusters but they form gunk during the cycling process. This deteriorates the life of the battery, while the silicon anodes arranged like a pomegranate seeds, are smaller than the  carbon outer casing. This design means more leeway when cycling and this battery lasts longer – the silicone seeds can swell which reduces the interaction between silicon and the other battery chemicals.

Traditionally, it has been difficult to use silicon in batteries since it gets brittle and  reacts with other chemicals in batteries, which eventually kills the whole system.


Biomimicry innovations are based upon principles that nature has developed throughout history.  Nature and technology has often been seen as polar opposites, yet scientific knowledge particularly in biology can results in the development of exciting new designs and products.

Janine Benyus: 9 Basic Principles of Biomimicry

  • Nature runs on sunlight.
  • Nature uses only the energy it needs.
  • Nature fits form to function.
  • Nature recycles everything.
  • Nature rewards cooperation.
  • Nature banks on diversity.
  • Nature demands local expertise.
  • Nature curbs excesses from within.
  • Nature taps the power of limits.