Self-organizing systems

Self-organizing is an informal description of some systems in which large-scale structure spontaneously arises from the myriad interactions of simpler agents. The social insects are a commonly-cited example: No ant or bee has a plan or is in charge, and yet there almost seems to be intentionality at the level of the colony.

My colleague Don Eisenstein and I have explored the opportunities for self-organization in the area of logistics. There are many advantages to self-organization in this realm. For example, a system that organizes itself is generally simple to set up and requires less monitoring or management. Furthermore, it typically adapts and recovers from disruptions.

One application of these ideas has been the development of bucket brigade assembly lines, which balance themselves, without the intervention of management or engineering. In addition to being mathematically pleasing, these ideas have been repeatedly proven to work in practice. Many large distribution centers now use bucket brigades to coordinate order-pickers, and report increases of productivity of 10–500 percent.

More recently we have designed a self-organizing scheme for coördinating buses so that they, in effect, produce their own schedule. In tests on a public bus route our system out-performed the scheduled service. This system now controls all the buses on the Georgia Tech campus.

We have also pursued these ideas in the context of the social insects. Indeed, the logistics of social insects contain many wonderful examples of self-organization and are a rich source of ideas.