Bio-inspired globalization

Traffic lights do reasonably well in regulating the traffic through the narrow late 19th-century streets around my office in Amsterdam. But one single roadwork is enough to bring all traffic to a grinding halt. While queues build up at unexpected places, traffic lights continue in the same preprogrammed rhythm as they always do, as if there weren’t any interruptions. This way, they are unable to smooth out the problems caused by the unexpected stream of cars. This invariably leads to a total breakdown of the traffic system, which usually lasts for several weeks until the roadworks are done.  

How different our bodies are! A friend of mine has a serious blood clot in one of his vital organs. As soon as this occurred, some other veins took over. In the process they broadened and obstacles were removed to increase flow. After a week a completely alternative system supplied blood to his organs. The logistics of nature outperforms us time and again. That is the central point of Swiss complexity scientist Dirk Helbing and his colleagues in a recent article (1). He mentions a long array of natural processes that may teach us how to better organize the flow of matter and energy. Our body manages to transport millions of different materials to different destinations, establishing billions of interactions, with an incredibly low energy consumption of a 100-watt light bulb.  

The solutions of nature and man

The solutions of nature are not always the most efficient. There are often several different processes operating in parallel, performing similar tasks. Stock levels are sometimes too high, as people who gain weight may note. Reactions to change are often slowed by lack of central control.  

Man-made logistics is often more efficient, to a degree where every last bit of slack – along with any potential flexibility – has been removed. If it’s up to the planners, no truck is ever left idle and there’s not a single bolt too many in the warehouse. The lack of flexibility means, however, that even a minor delay can have major consequences. That’s the dilemma: the more efficient your planning, the harder it is to adjust and the more frequently you’ll encounter a breakdown in the logistics chain.  

This efficiency dilemma is omnipresent. It is in fact the central thesis of an influential essay by Thomas Homer-Dixon (2). The human desire to optimize gains leads to ever more efficient socioeconomic and technological systems that are ever more susceptible to unexpected shocks. And as we continue to improve our economy on a worldwide scale, the shocks are also global. That’s what we saw in the worldwide food crisis of 2007 and the worldwide banking crisis of 2008. Homer-Dixon argues that we have to reduce efficiency, so that our global systems regain some elasticity and can absorb shocks before they become global. We should increase stability at the cost of efficiency, he says. This is, as he remarks, difficult to attain because it means giving up some of the gains that increased efficiency have brought. We would be paying the price of a regress in order to avoid global crises.  

I don’t agree with his thesis. It’s often the rigidity of control that reduces stability. The traffic lights are a good example. We could provide them with sensors that recognise changing traffic flows, so that they would adapt to roadworks. Dirk Helbing has studied traffic control for many years and presents an interesting new control strategy in his article. Introducing more fine-grained control has always been an expensive option, but that is now changing. We are now able to introduce local control, thanks to advances in electronics and sensors, that make them better and cheaper.  

Surviving shocks

Ecosystems show a remarkable ability to survive shocks. That’s why biological inspiration may give us new clues on how to increase stability. Dirk Helbing mentions many instructive examples from the living world. He says that we probably have to redefine efficiency to take into account the ability to absorb shocks. That’s true, of course. Most biologists would call this broadened definition ‘fitness.’ The most interesting cases would be where optimum efficiency coincides with optimum fitness. But there is a strong belief among biologists that this is impossible for competing organisms. So they would agree with Homer-Dixon. This belief even has a name: the Lotka Principle (3).  

This principle was never really proved. The logistic point of view that Dirk Helbing takes on biological processes may be helpful to study these important questions. It could reveal novel, efficient, fitting designs. This would help us to keep on top of globalized crises.  

References

(1) Helbing, Dirk, et al. (2009). ‘Biologistics and the struggle for efficiency: Concepts and perspectives. Advances in Complex Systems, 12 (6).  533–548.  

(2) Homer-Dixon, Thomas (2006). The upside of down: Catastrophe, creativity and the renewal of civilization. Vintage Canada, Toronto  

(3) Hall, C. A. S. (2004). The continuing importance of maximum power. Ecological Modelling, 178 (1-2), 107-113