Lessons From Ant Colonies

ants swarm photo

Photo: Wikipedia, GFDL
This is a guest post by Roy Brooke.

Watch ants sometime. There is no 'master ant' to convey orders. Each ant acts on local and partial information. Somehow, the system still works. Ant colonies work in sophisticated ways, from the huge mounds that some ants build to the complex ways they sustain their colony through foraging, defense and building intricate chambers and nests.

Ant colonies provide an example of 'emergence,' or the way complex systems emerge from interactions of smaller and simpler components. In our ant example, the system appears to work because of actions based on local information, interactions using this local information, and feedback loops of various types.

What can emergence tell us about how we design and build? We have learned biomimicry lessons from nature ranging from submarines to Velcro. Nature's relevance in sustainable design may extend much farther than this, however.

ants swarm photo

Photo: Wikipedia, GFDL

Everything ants produce, including venom, is biodegradable and contained in a 'cradle to cradle' system that replenishes rather than depletes (McDonough 2002). By contrast, every human society finally ends up in a position of ecological overshoot. Theoretically, we can learn from ants and other natural systems about living within boundaries.

Emergence may be able to help us in how we design. Rather than use top-down approaches that start with a fixed design idea, we could consider decentralized design processes that use diverse local inputs and establish feedback systems to ensure that they build upon local knowledge and reality. This could avoid some of the wildly unsustainable designs we see all too often - for example a heavily air-conditioned building with huge HVAC systems being used in a hot area.

Emergence may also have something to teach us about how we operate our own anthills - whether this is at the level of buildings or communities. 'Smart' buildings already ensure that its components react to information - for example blinds that automatically move to block mid-day sun. Can we share and network this information the way that ants network and share to build more coherent structures and societies? Is there a way to share the lessons of sustainability to create patterns that we can all apply?

Let's study the ants and find out.

This has been a guest post by Roy Brooke.

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