Swarm Intelligence: Designing with 1000 Eyes

Read Time: 3 minutes

Observing and learning from nature is not a new concept within the design community. In the modern era, Frank Lloyd Wright famously developed his theory of organic architecture by studying nature. But beyond form and pattern, how can designers today look at natural phenomena to better inform their designs and be more responsive to human behavior? SEGD member firm BrandCulture (Sydney, Australia) is meeting this challenge by applying theories of “swarm intelligence” to their designs to create better wayfinding and navigation systems.


“Fish school, birds flock, bugs swarm … It is like having a thousand eyes.”

—James Kennedy, social psychologist, from Swarm Intelligence.


Swarm intelligence is a term describing behavior exhibited by flocks of birds and schools of fish when they move together in perfect unison. It is a phenomenon that can also be observed in colonies of ants and herds of mammals. Individually, these animals are performing relatively simple tasks. Together, their intelligence is amplified by thinking together in systems. 

What, as designers, can we learn by observing swarms? How do swarms communicate? What propels a flock of birds to assemble, disperse and come together as one? How does a school of fish communicate and navigate? 

And how can that knowledge then be used in the design of human environments?

“BrandCulture considers swarm intelligence in all of the large environments we work on,” says Stephen Minning, Founder and Director at BrandCulture. “Most scenarios and behaviors can be predicted and catered for; however, there are always unknown situations that can be unpredictable. For example, what triggers a crowd of people to stampede or riot?”

In learning about swarm intelligence, BrandCulture’s designers are discovering how to apply behavioral analysis to wayfinding and navigation systems, helping to ensure that strategies and solutions positively serve individuals and user groups in all scenarios. This includes preventing stampedes and ensuring effective emergency responses.

“We know that large groups of people, who are responding to situations in highly intensive environments—like sports stadiums, densely populated precincts, or campuses—will create bottlenecks as they move in the same direction and blindly follow the person in front of them,” explains Stephen. “This behavior is similar to swallows flying in a field in synchronistic patterns, hence the term ‘swarm intelligence’—or lack of it in most (human) cases.”

“Every year safety measures at stadiums, music concerts and religious festivals are plagued by ineffective management of crowds with a reliance on staff and temporary barriers to maintain safety,” continues Stephen. “Despite this, too many people are hurt or killed. Employing swarm intelligence in design, planning, and wayfinding could help avoid these issues.”

So how do designers create swarm intelligence within these environments? BrandCulture contends that the world is already moving towards smarter navigation; we have digital signage that can display contextual and relevant content anywhere, anytime, to help inform and guide people to make smarter decisions—and not just simply follow the person in front of them.

This is where wayfinding strategy becomes integral to the design of the built environment, indirectly enabling people to read and take cues from that environment while considering every person’s ability to interact and communicate with each other. Imagine what could be achieved if each person’s partial knowledge could combine to create a more powerful body of facts and strategies. Perhaps, propelled by an invisible (group) intelligence and the power of indirect communication, we humans could achieve so much more.

“The future will be different as predictive modeling of environments, and effective planning of responsive digital signage help ensure we are more informed about where to go and how to stay safe,” says Stephen. “This learning and evolving will continue, and each enlivenment will become smarter, safer, more productive and more pleasurable.

Read more on Swarm Intelligence with these BrandCulture articles:

New Project: Weaving ANU’s campus into the Capital

The power of swarm intelligence: “It’s like having 1,000 eyes”