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Wednesday, 3 June 2015

83. Honeybee democracy and beecision making

Honeybee Democracy is the title of a book by Thomas Seeley.  It's about how bees make decisions and, as Seeley points out, there might be something here for people to learn from.  In this post I want to highlight those insights and suggest how bee decision making might be adapted to the practice of local democracy.

The new idea here is beecision making - a method that a group of independent minded people can use to explore a range of solutions to a given problem.  This idea combines insights from honeybee democracy and from the unconference movement.  As with a bee colony there is no powerful leader and no political parties.  As with an unconference there is no formal structure or process and people are free to vote with their feet and follow their own judgements.

How Bees Decide Stuff 

Contrary to what you might think, the queen doesn't run the colony - she just lays the eggs.  Instead decision making is governed by something called swarm intelligence - wikipedia define this as 'the collective behaviour of decentralized, self-organized systems, natural or artificial'.

We know how bees decide on a new home thanks to Thomas Seeley's work.  The process goes like this:

The swarm perches on a nearby tree, then sends out a few dozen scout bees to scour the neighbourhood. Their job is to find, measure and evaluate every hollow tree or other enclosed space. When the scouts return to the several-thousand-strong swarm, they dance atop the other bees, telling them what they have found.

A potential nest must be large enough to hold ample honey to feed the colony through the winter, high enough to offer protection from predators, and have a small entrance for the same reason. The vigour and duration of each scout's dance reflect her enthusiasm for the site she has found.

The decision-making process...is both effective and efficient, involving a "debate" over the several sites the scouts discover. When a scout returns and dances vigorously, other scouts fly off to check on her choice. Over the course of hours or days, they reach a consensus, and advocates of rejected sites simply stop plumping for them.

This selfless process works because all the bees in the swarm are the queen's daughters, and they share the common goal of colony survival. Though an individual bee is not particularly intelligent, the collective "swarm intelligence" produces impressive results. 

As Mary Myerscough points out: "Individual bees don’t compare multiple sites, but visit only one and instinctively know the difference between a so-so spot and “a bee five-star mansion,”.  There is no benchmarking or options appraisal - just the wisdom of crowds.

This LGIU post:  'What can councils learn from bees?' reflects similar work by Peter Miller:  
Miller suggests that three main lessons can be learned from the bees: seek a diversity of knowledge; encourage friendly competition of ideas and use an effective mechanism to narrow choices. 
These insights from swarm intelligence, mixed with some ideas from the unconference movement can, I think, provide a neat method of decision making.

A Beecision Making Conference 

The unconference movement is associated with events that are participant driven and reject the need for top down organisation and pre agreed agendas.  There is a clearly a lot in common here with the bees.

Starting with the idea of an unconference, honeybee democracy might be applied in practice like this:

  • A problem is framed and participants are invited to attend - 50 or more would seem about right 
  • Up to 10 participants are signed up as scouts - their job is to go away and research solutions and to select the one they like best 
  • At the conference each scout pitches their solution to the whole group then withdraws to a separate room / table 
  • A second group goes to talk to the scouts (as many as they like) and they come back and pitch to the room the solution they like best - they then return to be with the scout of their preferred choice 
  • The rest of the group is then free to roam around the conference and engage with the different solutions - once they are happy they  have found one they like they stay there (unless persuaded to leave) 
  • After a set time the conference ends and the solution that has attracted the biggest crowd is selected. 

I'm sure this can be improved - maybe it's been done already.  Let me know!


I'm struck by how much this chimes with Rousseau's ideas about democracy.  The process relies on independent individuals concerned with the common good; parties and factions would prevent this process from working.


See also the 'people swarm' idea, put forward by Finlayson and Martin that I've written about before.

Photo: https://flic.kr/p/sAKF59


Anonymous said...

Very interesting post Dave, with unconferences rooted in Open Space Technology the link to democracy is linked again in the participative sense. That open dialogue and transparency can only help as we build public services that are fit for the future. Cheers!


Unknown said...

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