EMBRACE THE SWARM

The surest way to smartness…

… is through massive dumbness.

The surest way to advance massive connectionism is to exploit decentralized forces–to link the distributed bottom. How do you build a better bridge? Let the parts talk to one another. How do you improve lettuce farming? Let the soil speak to the farmer’s tractors. How do you make aircraft safe? Let the airplanes communicate among themselves and pick their own flight paths. This decentralized approach, known as “free flight,” is a system the FAA is now trying to institute to increase safety and reduce air-traffic bottlenecks at airports.

Mathematical problems which were once intractable for super-computers have been solved by using a swarm of small PCs. A very complex problem is broken up into tiny parts and distributed throughout the network. Likewise, vast research projects that would tax any one institution can be distributed to an ad hoc network. The Tree of Life is a worldwide taxonomic catalog of all living species on Earth administered on the web. Such a project is beyond the capabilities of one person or group. But a decentralized network can produce the necessary intelligence. Each local expert supplies their own data (on finches, or ferns or jellyfish) to fill in some of the blanks. As Larry Keely of the Doblin Group says, “No one is as smart as everyone.”

Any process, even the bulkiest, most physical process, can be tackled by bottom-up swarm thinking. Take, for example, the delivery of wet cement in the less-than-digital economy of rural northern Mexico. Here Cemex (Cementos Mexicanos) runs a ready-mix cement business that is overwhelming its competitors and attracting worldwide interest. It used to be that getting a load of cement delivered on time to a construction site in the Guadalajara region was close to a miracle. Traffic delays, poor roads, contractors who weren’t ready when they said they would be, all added up to an on-time delivery rate of less than 35%. In response, cement companies tried to enforce rigid advance reservations, which, when things went wrong (as they always did), only made matters worse (“Sorry, we can’t reschedule you until next week.”).

Cemex transformed the cement business by promising to deliver concrete faster than pizza. Using extensive networking technology–GPS real-time location signals from every truck, massive telecommunications throughout the company, and full information available to drivers and dispatchers, with the authority to act on it–the company was able to promise that if your load was more than 10 minutes late, you got a 20% discount.

Instead of rigidly trying to schedule everything ahead of time in an environment of chaos, Cemex let the drivers themselves schedule deliveries ad hoc and in real time. The drivers formed a flock of trucks crisscrossing the town. If a contractor called in an order for 12 yards of mix, the available truck closest to the site at that time would make the delivery. Dispatchers would ensure customer creditworthiness and guard against omissions, but the agents in the field had permission and the information they needed to schedule orders on the fly. Result: On-time delivery rates reached about 98%, with less wastage of hardened cement, and much happier customers.

 

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This is a blog version of a book of mine first published in 1998. I am re-issuing it (two posts per week) unaltered on its 10th anniversary. Comments welcomed. More details here.
-- KK