You Say You Want a Revolution?

Scientists create an artificial “swarm” to learn how a small band of revolutionaries can overthrow established leaders.

Flock of Birds


A small band of revolutionaries can topple a government; small companies can displace the market leader. The question is, how? For all of the chin scratching among management theorists, no one has ever come up with a definitive reason, or strategy.

But Hai-Tao Zhang, a physicist at the University of
Cambridge, and a team of collaborators has come up with some intriguing answers. Their insight came after they discarded the infinite variables of real-life human organizations, and instead looked towards the social structure of birds.

Just like humans, flocking birds, when finding food sources, follow the leadership group that has the most members. But somehow, a small band of like minded birds can sway the entire flock. Zhang created a computer-based “swarm” to discern just what was going on. He set the program so that individuals would always follow the average movement of those around them. In the presence of a small band of leaders moving all in the same direction, the swarm usually follows. But a small group of power-seekers can overthrow the swarm’s behavior if they can secure steadfast allegiance–and if their own membership is scattered, so as to better distribute their influence. Thus, gaining power is about finding the right spread in your support base, rather than creating a rock-solid peak to the pyramid.

As the Technology Review points out, the lessons gleaned by Zhang actually have a neat parallel in the way Internet-based grass-roots campaigns work. The Obama campaign, for example, leaned on a diffuse network of fervent supporters to market their candidate locally. In other words, mass movements don’t start at one superheated hotspot and then move outwards–rather, they start in diffuse powercenters, which then sway what’s around them. Which is perhaps what we’ve always known about popular support of political parties. But what’s really interesting is that this might translate into a broader empirical law, with applications from marketing to management.

distribution patterns of leaders


About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.