Swarm Intelligence and the Marathon Bombing Response

The faculty of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative unveiled their preliminary findings on the leadership of the response to the Boston Marathon bombings at a special symposium on April 8, 2013. (Download the findings: NPLI Marathan Bombing Leadership Response Report dist).

“Many reports and events have looked at what happened. Our objective has been to examine the ‘why’ questions,” said NPLI founding co-director Leonard Marcus. “The operational lessons are important. Equally critical, however, are the human factors of leadership. These can determine success or failure in crisis situations.”

Among the findings is that elements of “swarm intelligence” were evident in leaders’ relationships and actions during the week of April 15, 2013. Swarm intelligence is a phenomenon originally observed in termites, ants, and birds where complex activities emerged without a clear leader. In using it as a metaphor for the Marathon bombing response, the NPLI report reflects what many of the leaders interviewed called “collective leadership”: each felt in charge of their organizational unit but no one was exerting overall command of the event. As they had learned over time how to work together, these leaders and their teams were able to coordinate and collaborate effectively under conditions of extreme pressure and uncertainty.

“Our work on swarm intelligence in crisis leadership is in its early stages,” said Marcus. “We are excited to build upon what we have learned so far in hopes that other communities can build similar capabilities.”

Marcus also spoke at a preview of the National Geographic Channel special, Inside the Hunt for the Boston Bombings.