What we can all learn from the delightful Slime Mould

I love slime mould and I use a video of slime mould to teach business students about complexity, emergence and complex emergent organisation. Before I go on, take a look at this video from John Bonner. It’s wonderful:

Slime mould is a fascinating organism to study, since it has two distinctive phases in its lifecycle. When food is plentiful, in the form of bacteria, this species exists as free living and independent amoeba. However, as soon as food becomes scarce, something quite extraordinary happens, the previously independent amoeba begin to act as a coherent whole. After an eight hour interphase process, some of the amoeba begin to aggregate around cells which act as centres, sending out chemical signals consisting of cAMP. There are two forms of action. In the first instance cells which receive the signal then repeat the signal by sending it out to other cells. In the second instance, cells receiving the signal move towards the origin of the signal. This is the lifecycle shown in the video above.

Around each centre several thousand cells will amalgamate and start to form a new multicellular organism. Previously identical cells will begin to differentiate into different cell types, forming a fruiting body. This new organism consists of a base, a stalk which rises up from the base and a fruiting body made up of a ball of live spores which will be able to survive the absence of food and water. Therefore not only do the cells differentiate, but those making up the stalk will eventually die, sacrificing themselves for the greater good of the whole.

Scientists are studying slime mould in many different ways. For example, this simple amoeba with no nervous system and no brain is able to solve maze problems and is able able to design food networks very similar to our most intelligently-designed transport systems.

John Bonner says that we still have a huge amount to learn from this humble form of life. When we mediate on what is happening, we discover some interesting observations.

  • There is top-down command and control centre. The system is self-organising
  • “Information” flows freely throughout the system
  • In times of scarcity the individual entities are able to undergo a rapid transformation
  • New structures emerge in a way in which can not be determined simply by a study of the individual parts. What is that causes one cell to transform into one new kind of cell, and the same type of cell to transform into something entirely different?
  • All cells contribute to the success of the community

I need now to highlight an article by Peter Vander Auwera I really enjoyed this weekend which very much mentions the concept of the living organisation and what if we change our mental models of organisations to base them on the complex organic and dynamic systems we see in nature:

Companies are Movements for Greatness

In this article he pulls out some observations about hyper connected and learning organisations and what qualities make them so great:

  • Curated content
  • Community (Culture of openness, Collaboration, Creativity, and optimism)
  • Co-Learning, Co-Working, Co-Creation
  • Collisions (Colliding communities, serendipity, etc)
  • Connections

Peter’s article refers to the Downtown project created by Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, the shoe company acquired my Amazon last year. I checked the project out, and like Peter I was quite amazed. The Downtown project began when Zappos started to investigate where its new headquarters would be. The looked at other examples such as the campuses of Google, Apple and Nike. These campuses have all the facilities employees would ever need and would therefore never have to leave.

NYC Campus: Photo credit: Downtown project presentation

The picture above comes from the Downtown project slides. The slides describe the project as follows:

Rather than build a campus that’s insular, that doesn’t create reasons for people to leave, Zappos decided that it would be more interesting to create a campus that interacts with the community around it, that encourages people to interact serendipitously with people they might not otherwise meet. A campus that functions not only as a workplace, but also as a community gathering space.

Surrounding the future Zappos HQ is an amazing neighborhood called Fremont East. It’s filled with bars, restaurants, and shops run by local business owners. It’s the kind of neighborhood where people run into friends on the street, where any bar or restaurant you visit, you’ll see someone you know.

It’s actually one of the most community-focused neighborhoods you can imagine—in the place you would least expect it. Downtown Las Vegas. Downtown Project was created as its own entity with a mission to help to revitalize the neighborhood and catalyze the growth of the community.

The project was possible as a result of $350 million of investment from Hsieh. The main beneficiaries of this funding were:

  • $ 50M Small Businesses
  • $ 50M Tech Startups
  • $ 50M Education, Arts, Culture
  • $200M Residential & Real Estate

I really do rate the quality of the vision of this project which encompasses the following objectives:

  • Arts, Music and Culture
  • Community and Co-working
  • Education
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Technology
  • Urban Development

I particularly liked what they have to say about community and co-working:

The foundation of our mission is to help to create the most community-focused large city in the world. Las Vegas is home to as many creative thinkers as New York but often lacks the call and spaces that encourage people to gather around common passions.

Through deliberate seeding of community gatherings, we’re helping to provide the spaces and reasons for people to come together and inspire each other to follow their passions.

So what has all of this got to do with slime mould, if anything?

Traditionally we have regarded organisations as bounded entities with only an abstract relationship to the outside world. Often we can be so focussed on the profit motive that we do not consider the quality of the relationship with the immediate community. In this project though, obviously because of the funding, the focus is not on Return on Investment but on Return on Community.

When we consider a humble amoeba, we think of its own boundaries with the environment, and these boundaries are porous. There is a free flow of energy into and out of the cell. Also, in order to understand the collective action of slime mould we can only understand it as parts in an authentic relationship with the whole, with the surroundings and environment.

When we think of organisations as living systems, our whole world view changes to one where we can contemplate the world, the entire world not as a piece of clockwork with individual parts which can be broken down and understood separately, but a world where the new reality is one which is interconnected, interdependent, complex and self-organising.

As Phil Lawson and Robert Lindstrom say in their book Being Spherical:

Problems arise when we lose sight of the whole and become part-mentalised.

Their goal is to help people develop subjective awareness, broaden perspectives, guide understanding of complex interrelationships and facilitate communication amongst individuals and groups. I really feel that the Downtown project has the same objectives, and that it will certainly be a project worth watching to monitors their successes in the future and to see what we can learn for our own projects, organisations and communities.

I am not too sure if I have fully made the case for studying slime mould. I find it amazing, and I also do lots of other things, such as really observing plants grow, and playing with prisms, light and colour. These studies have really helped me to understand organic dynamic living systems, and have given me a new way of thinking which I find absolutely applicable in many business contexts. There are a number of excellent books now on complexity, living systems and organisational strategy, in particularly Giles Hutchins’ new book The Nature of Business. I have also written about this topic a number of times, the articles of which are below.

Related Articles

Book discussion: The Nature of Business by Giles Hutchins

What can Goethe teach people in business? Otto Scharmer interviews Thomas Johnson

Giles Hutchins: Leadership for the future: diversity, creativity and co-creation

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