James Haywood Rolling Jr. is associate professor of art education and leadership at Syracuse University. He has served on the board of directors of the National Art Education Association, and has authored three other books on arts and creativity. His recent book is Swarm Intelligence: What nature teaches us about shaping creative leadership (see my review).
Rolling joins us in this exclusive interview on human creative behaviours in swarms, group intelligence, adaptive entrepreneurship, and music and Pixar Studios as examples of intersection between arts, science and entrepreneurship.
A: The largest and most general audience for the book is those readers interested in cultivating their own creative growth or aiding the creative development of friends and loved ones. Swarm Intelligence also targets those who are interested in the power and potential of 21st century tools and techniques for developing and expanding their social networks or the effectiveness of their organizations and affinity groups, whether in face-to-face interpersonal interaction, in business circles, or over internet social and gaming networks.
Swarm Intelligence will appeal to readers of books like Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, and James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds. However, what distinguishes Swarm Intelligence is its exploration of six crucial areas of human interaction through which individual creativity can be collectively fostered: social networks, systems, swarms, superorganisms, stories, and schools.
It is interesting to note that the concepts in Swarm Intelligence have been equally provocative to arts policy makers on the West Coast, as evidenced by their response to a talk I was recently invited to give, as it has been with a totally unrelated group of children’s book authors. So there has already been a wide range of influence since the release of the book in November 2013.
YS: What are the typical challenges creative people face as they scale up their company from an innovating firm to a mature corporation?
A: The greatest challenge is in attempting to forge a path ahead as if a successful business was the hallmark of individual achievement alone. It is not. In the six years after Thomas Edison established his Menlo Park laboratory facilities in New Jersey, approximately 400 inventions were patented in his name.
We like to talk of Edison’s individual genius but fail to recognize the collective intelligence of his team, one of whom has noted that Thomas Edison was so in sync within this hive of activity that “it is difficult to distinguish his actions from those of his colleagues.” Francis Jehl, one of his long-time assistants, also divulged that “Edison is in reality a collective noun and refers to the work of many men.”
YS: How are social media like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest creating new kinds of swarms?
A: Online social networks enabled by Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest create new kinds of creative swarms that are not solely the domain of any individual member, but also of the entire network of individuals. However, collaborative social networks have creative consequences.
Sometimes what a network learns benefits only itself and is at the direct expense of its neighboring swarms of thinkers and doers. We can easily lose our ability to connect across networks and detach ourselves from the joy of common purpose, as we hide behind our network firewalls.
YS: What are some ways in which creative people can show their leadership in swarms?
A: There are actually four natural laws of swarm behavior that are also demonstrated by the best creative leaders. As a creative leader, you must first learn to: 1) chase after those directly ahead of you in the lead ranks; 2) separate from those too close for comfort; 3) align with those pacesetters moving right beside you; 4) and cohere with the cloud of peers around you as you all converge together toward a common and mutually advantageous target or goal.
YS: Are swarm effects generally short-term effects, or do swarms have long-term impacts?
A: It is crucial to understand that swarm intelligence is a problem-solving behavior that does not need to be altogether simultaneous, with all individuals working together on a single project outcome and arriving at one collective “aha!” moment. Rather, this collective intelligence may just as readily be distributed over time, with each individual ultimately contributing a separate outcome longitudinally toward a deepened overall understanding of the wide range of possible outcomes, extending the vision of every group member in the process. This is how cultures are formed; it is a long-term undertaking.
YS: Your comparison between jazz and swarms was particularly intriguing. How do musicians lead and learn from swarms of music trends, events, and emerging genres?
A: Jazz emerged from the most cosmopolitan city of the nineteenth century, New Orleans, where on any given day one could hear the sound of brass marching bands, spirituals of the Black church, Italian opera, travelling minstrel shows, the offbeat accents and swing rhythms of ragtime, the New Orleans blues, Caribbean-influenced piano salon music, Afro-Cuban habanera music, Creole concert bands, and popular European music hall performances.
Given the unique inception of this musical form, perhaps the most important thing a contemporary jazz musician can do is to look outside the borders of the genres they are most familiar with for their next influences. A distinguishing characteristic of creative swarms features decentralized control, distributed problem-solving, and multiple interactions between agents. In other words, the more autonomous individuals are in their thinking, and the greater your group’s diversity and the number of your exchanges between the others you interact with inside and outside of your group, the stronger the culture you are more likely to forge.
YS: You rightly point out that more bridges need to be built between arts and sciences. How about connecting these to businesses skills and social entrepreneurship as well?
A: The arts and sciences are the perfect point of intersection for entrepreneurship practices. For example, social entrepreneurship is defined as locating a problem in society—circumstances and behaviors that are stuck, ineffective, or not working to empower people—and addressing that problem by introducing some kind of transformation into the system that first produced the problem. Problems are the mother of invention and inventions are the mother of both businesses and non-profit enterprises.
YS: How should innovators strike that delicate balance between ‘Stick to your vision’ and ‘Adapt to a changed world’?
A: An octopus, like other cephalopods, has the ability to alter the color and texture of its skin, living from one adaptation to the next in order to maintain its appearance as a meaningful part of its surroundings as it moves across the changing landscape of the ocean floor. It maintains its basic shape—sticking to its vision—and contorts or adapts itself only to escape danger or pursue what it feeds. Innovators strike a delicate balance that requires a constant self-awareness or else face being eaten alive by those higher up in the food chain.
YS: Is there such a thing as the ‘ideal age’ for a creative entrepreneur?
A: There is no ideal age for creativity. Creativity is another word for human development. Children invent ideas and process and systems all the time. Throughout the varied kingdoms of young social animals, games and times of frolic or play are also times of crucial learning. When your child “sells” you pies made of mud for a pretend party that is the ‘startup bug’ in its early stages. Nourish it. And never stop playing, even as an adult.
YS: Who are some of the creative people and organizations you admire the most today, and why?
A: I am a great admirer of what is known as the Pixar Animation Studios ‘Braintrust’, responsible at this point for 14 box office hits in a row. They never stop playing with story ideas, collectively taking them apart and putting them back together, but better—based on each individual’s willingness to communicate the truth about what they think of a story-in-process.
This is a swarm intelligence principle in action. As I mentioned earlier, the mechanisms of social networks are very simple and they are three-fold, featuring decentralized control, distributed problem-solving, and multiple interactions between agents. The Pixar ‘Braintrust’ meets over and over again, each pitching ways to make the story better, not in service to the studio heads, but in service to the story.
YS: What is your next book going to be about?
A: My next book is going to offer my readers an introduction to the creative continuum—the full complex of advantageous behaviors, social practices, and cultural patterns that work in concert as both a self-sustaining system of human development and an incubator for the individual creativity of those that constitute it.
YS: What is your parting message to the creative people and aspiring entrepreneurs in our audience?
A: Creative individuals and organizations operate simply: follow the trail of the fish in front, if there is one…and if there isn’t a frontrunner ahead, that just means you are in the lead for the time being; keep pace with the fish beside you; monitor your environment and adapt as you move through it. We move the most safely and rapidly from point A to point B when we behave together.