decentralization The connected lives of ants, brains, cities and software  Steven Johnson The reading makes use of the behaviour, life cycle and overall development of ant colonies referring to it using the term ‘swarm logic’ in supporting the idea of the importance of emergence in order to understand complicated systems. In doing so, relating the concepts to human beings, urban systems and the digital world. The writer describes swarm logic as the collective intelligence of the colony system. Unlike centralized systems that human brains are used to, ant colonies evolve and develop through a decentralized system where there is no hierarchy. The key term behind the logic is ‘local’. Ants process information through pheromones / semiochemicals by creating a functional sign system through these chemicals. An ant colony can only perceive the world from the street level. ‘Seeing the whole’ as the author describes it is a perceptual and conceptual impossibility in this bottom up system. There are five key points elaborated to follow if building a system designed to learn from street level, where overall development is derived from local knowledge:

  1. More is different – for an ant colony to make intelligent assessments of its global state a massive number ants are needed. This is due to the strong statistical attributes of its functionality. In order to understand the development an entire system has to be observed as an individual ants actions are arbitrary
  2. Ignorance is useful – evaluation of the overall state by an individual can be a liability in a decentralized system like this. Allow sophisticated behaviour to evolve through an intertwined system composed of simple elements
  3. Encourage random encounter – individual encounters with other ants are insignificant. Because of the mass over time the system as a whole evolve and develop through changes and alterations in behaviour adapted through these encounters
  4. Look for patterns – the pattern detection skill of ants is the means to circulate information through an ant colony. Abbreviated in the text as ‘signs about signs’
  5. Pay attention to neighbour – Without interactions a colony would be a dysfunctional group of individual elements that is further emphasized on as ‘swarm without logic’. Local information can lead to global wisdom

In order to understand the how an ant colony evolves over time we need to observe it in the scale of decades. Each colony goes through phases of infancy, adolescence and maturity within a time span of fifteen years. Although the whole colony cycle is fifteen years the life span of individual ants in the colony is only twelve months. Understanding emergence begins with understanding how the whole can have a life cycle while single organisms are so short-lived. Two key points to remember here according to the reading is the persistence of the whole overtime and that global behaviour outlasts any individual parts. The relationship between human body cells is looked into which gives a closer more familiar relationship to understand the logic. Throughout the rest of the reading relations are made with examples referring back to the aforementioned five points. The fact that an ant colony is an entirely self-sustainable intelligent city raises the question if human beings can incorporate swarm logic into enhancing development strategies. Ants have a decentralized system because that is the only means for its functionality. For us, we have the choice of incorporating decentralized systems into our very strongly centralized systems. This I believe might be an efficient approach to creating self-sustainable, interactive and smart cities we are hoping to create. I would like to explore options of street level analysis (as referred to in text) of human behaviour in the urban system to learn about any ideas that could help come up with more self-sustainable systems. photo credits: