Ah, ants… They are a source of endless amazement. Back in the day when I was a student, I used to love to stoop down by the dandelions and watch ant colonies hard at work and perfectly timed. Such sophisticated organization, such incredible social unity among such small insects! Bewildered, I thought the ants’ farm was a living being in and of itself, a far superior being where ants became its extensions, somewhat similar to the limbs of a human being. But I was still confronted with a confounding question: where is the brain, the centre in charge of coordination? Each ant seems to be working independently, without apparent supervision and yet, the ants’ nest is the ultimate model of cohesion and coherence.
Nowadays, ethologists whose life work is to study animal behaviour have confirmed that there is no command centre among social insects. Instead, it’s all about self-structured network cooperation. For example, although each ant has a simple set of behaviours, each one provides a significant and essential contribution to solving complex problems, such as finding the most direct path between the nest and a food source. The process is a lesson in efficiency. The secret? It’s how they are organized as a network. This organization system offers a multitude of useful interactionswhile still preserving a level of flexibility afforded by each party’s independence. The result is a communal balance within the organization and a greater chance of continuity.
At a time when sustainable development is being imposed on society as a whole, a society that has supposedly evolved, I notice with some amusement that we are increasingly turning to biology and to the study of living systems to find and formulate, possible solutions to our various problems by observing nature at work. For example, with the help of the Bios Group, Unilever established a model to reduce production time in one of their plants that was based almost entirely on ant behaviour. A group from Brussels has also used a computerized simulation of ant behaviour to develop an optimum transport management system. Furthermore, France Télécom and British Telecommunications also employ development systems based on ant behaviour to modify telecommunications traffic when phone lines are congested and in need of relief to maximize circulation.
Ants are indeed my favourite, but bees rate a close second. Their network organization model is just as enlightening. Did you know that a bee colony is what inspired improvements in workplace flexibility? In fact, they noted that older bees take on foraging duties while the younger ones are nurse bees. But the system remains flexible: if the hive is in need of food, the younger bees join the others and forage to find food until the hive is able to reach a new balance. Observing this phenomena led to the development of a new programming technique aimed at paint cubicles within the car manufacturing industry. This innovative programming is based on the exchange of information that occurs between the various parties rather than on orders generated by a central computer. Once again, the network is more flexible, faster and productive.
If the network is so efficient in the insect world, why can’t it be just as functional and productive in the human world? Truth be told, this is precisely the means of entrepreneurial organization championed by the cooperative movement. Each cooperative is independent, which ensures malleability and flexibility, and the multiple inter-cooperative relationships allow each and every cooperative to contribute as a unit to the whole, a contribution that is both useful and essential to solving their common problems. The result is a profitable organization process, no need to go back to ant watching to know that!