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.
YS: How was your book received? What were some of the unusual responses and reactions you got?
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
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