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,


Volvo, LifePaint, Airbags and Expanding Concepts and Markets

“The best way to survive a crash is not to crash”

What should a car manufacturer focus the attention on?

What ideas are embedded in the concept car manufacturer?

Cars! Of course a car manufacturer deals with developing the best, safest, fastest, most energy-efficient cars. But what if we extend the concept  “car manufacturer” and look at other things and people who are also using the road at the same time. Like bicycles and pedestrians. Is there a market that a car manufacturer can explore?

Swedish car manufacturer Volvo has briefly turned its attention to bikes, working alongside UK design firm Grey London and Albedo100 to create LifePaint to make the roads safer. LIfePaint is a water-based reflective spray, which is only visible at night. More than 19,000 cyclists are injured on the UK’s roads every year and at Volvo they believe that the best way to survive a crash is not to crash. The company is committed to making the roads a safer place and the paint may help to reduce the number of accidents.


Another important aspect is the safety of pedestrian and in 2013 Volvo introduced the world’s first car with external airbags to help protect pedestrians from serious head and neck injuries. The airbag is located under the hood and inflates at the base of the windshield. This solution enables the driver to see ahead.


To push the idea with pedestrian safety even further, the car manufacturer designed a pedestrian detection system. If the driver does not react fast enough, the car’s brakes apply automatically when  a pedestrian steps in front of the vehicle.

This idea can be further developed to include animals. Accidents involving elks,  reindeer, deer and other animals can lead to serious accidents. And cars are also responsible for the death of many smaller animals such as hedgehogs. . .

Think about the safest way of using your products and see if you can extend the concept to involve other aspects. Maybe you will end up with not only a safer way of using your products but also a completely new product.

New Brave Design Thinking Approach


Can you design something so that people stay politically engaged? How would you design a fabric that is made out of waste? What if it was possible to design a spot where people feel safe? Or a game that provides people suffering from Alzheimer game with a channel of communication?

The artist and innovator Daan Rosegaarde says.  “You make the things, but the things also make you. . . Good design never stops. You must remain a voluntary prisoner of your own imagination.”

Design thinking is different from analytical thinking and the underlying idea is to build up ideas that embraces big issues (we will explore  differences and similarities between analytical and design thinking in another blog post). Design thinking can be part of a way to find solutions to problems associated with social issues, politics, ecology, energy, and health. This approach is also different making something pretty and beautiful to look at. Designing a new cutlery can be an art where different materials are used to create something that is visually attractive. The cutlery should also be designed in a shape and way that it feels good to use them.

Yet you can push the design thinking  further. For example, you can design cutlery as part of a new innovation –  an incubator that transforms plastic waste into mushroom. Sounds incredible!

The Fungi Mutarium is a prototype to grow fungi around recycled plastic wastes, breaking down and digesting the material as it develops. It may take weeks for the plastic to be fully digested so they are ready to be eaten. To help with the eating of these fungi a moon spoon was designed that helps you scrape the tiny fungi from the pods.

Watch the video below and check out this idea at Livin Studio.

The ultimate goal of design thinking is the discovery of the best outcomes for all the participants. Questions are the core in design thinking,  at the Design Academy Eindhoven the focus is on the following questions.

  • What do you want?
  • What do you like?
  • What do you think the world needs?
  • What do you make?
  • And Why?

Design thinking is a fascinating topic and if you want to read more, Daan has contributed to the book Looks Good Feels Good Is Good – How Social Design Changes Our World.

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LEGO Rich!

“Are you LEGO rich? Do you have an idea for a LEGO set? And are you a Creative consumer?”

Yes, adults play with LEGO too and there are over 250.000 registered members of LEGO User Groups throughout the world. LEGO, one of the most creative brands in the world, is using its fan community to develop ideas. The company has over 10 million Facebook fans.

Watch this wonderful inspiring TED talk about the dark ages of LEGO and how to be LEGO rich and spending time playing and learning.

Traditionally companies have looked for ideas within the company but this approach is changing. Today, consumers are encouraged by some companies to be engaged and involved in the development of products. Companies such as LEGO has recognized the power and creative ideas of its fan base. Instead of passive consumers, creative and engaged consumers’ ideas are used and valued.

Several changes have lead to this approach, among them the easier access to the market and people. This means that perception of a distant consumer has changed and it makes sense to use and develop consumers’ ideas. Consumers have after all insight into their own needs and desires. However, it is important to note that consumers are not always right and often there is a need to develop their ideas and suggestions.

The LEGO user groups are not owned by the LEGO group instead they are groups that exist both online  and offline that are run and owned by the users themselves. Thus, the communities are self-organized and self-owned.

The LEGO group uses a platform where users can upload their ideas and other users help to select interesting ideas. The company they co-creates products and an user’s idea may become part of the LEGO product assortment. The person entering an idea gets compensation if the original idea is commercialised.

It starts with an “idea”—a spark of inspiration.

LEGO Ideas accepts your ideas for new LEGO sets in the form of a “project.” A project includes photos of a LEGO model you create as well as a written description that becomes your proposal for a potential LEGO product.”

Can you use a similar approach in your company? Or can you sell this idea to a company?

Here is a link to a success story and some pictures of the product. You may also like the blog post about Creativity the LEGO-way.


It’s not too late to make a difference

Happy New Year

As we welcome 2015, some of us may think that it is now too late to make a real impact. As we reflect upon 2014, we may moan over that another year has passed and we have not make that breakthrough yet and perhaps, perhaps we never may. We believe that we cannot make a difference.

But we can! Age is not the problem.

We tell ourselves stories all the time, and the stories become self-fulfilling prophecies. In the TED-talk below, Jonathan Sackner-Bernstein shakes our idea that we are too old at a certain age to start a new company or to have  breakthrough ideas. So rather than lower your expectations with age, you should see age as an advantage.

Gijs and I wish all a readers a prosperous 2015 filled with exciting ideas and thoughts.

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