How ‘swarm intelligence’ could help with pandemic response

During a crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic, the right circumstances and leadership can help generate a force dubbed “swarm intelligence”—when people work together to respond, almost instinctually, in a way that magnifies their individual capabilities, according to crisis leadership experts from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

An October 26, 2020 article in the New Yorker discussed the phenomenon of swarm intelligence and how leaders might encourage it—or not—during the pandemic.

The article cited research by Harvard’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (NPLI), a joint program of Harvard Chan School and Harvard Kennedy School, on the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Studying that crisis, the NPLI team found that many people worked together seamlessly in a city known for political and law-enforcement rivalries—a potent example of swarm intelligence. By contrast, recent actions by President Trump, such as contradicting his own scientific experts and frequently firing advisers, can result in what Leonard Marcus, NPLI co-director, called “suspicion leadership”—a dynamic in which people don’t trust one another and defend their own turf.

Marcus cited other leaders, including several governors, who have been effective during the pandemic by helping create the conditions for swarm intelligence. For example, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo decided to help Massachusetts by sending ventilators to the state. “He’s not going to get any votes from Massachusetts,” Marcus said of Cuomo. “But there’s a sense that our fates are intermingled; that we’re not going to do things that are just about me, but about this interconnection that we’re discovering.”

Other NPLI experts quoted in the article included Associate Director Eric McNulty, and distinguished senior fellows Joseph Henderson and Richard Serino.

Read the New Yorker article: What Should Crisis Leadership Look Like?