The Lybbaverse / ideas-salon  

Murmurations as metaphors for new learning systems


Lybba participated in the IDEAS Salon, sponsored by the prestigious University of Toronto School of Medicine, orchestrated by the inventive ideators at Epic Decade, and held at the scenic Cordevalle in San Martin, California, December 14 through 16.

The forum centered on the theme of rediscovering learning, to rethink the knowledge and innovative R&D models needed for the next decade of health and wellness, in essence "to R&D R&D". Each of six predetermined groups was tasked to create a metaphor that might help us do just that.

Themes included collaborative discovery and the return of value to education, given the following precepts:

  • We believe our current models for learning have fallen short.
  • We believe that we have inherited infrastructures designed for the past not the future.
  • Developing learning and knowledge for the next decade of health and wellness is cross-disciplinary cultural practice.
  • We believe we need to reimagine the models and institutions that guide the future of the health and wellness workforce.
  • We believe in a culture of change that is adaptable, responsive to rapid technological developments and able to recast the global frameworks for success in real time.
  • We believe we need new skills to create healthy societies.

Our team included a chief medical information officer of a progressive healthcare company, founders of innovative startups, and directors of established institutes of both mental and public health, and experimental art.

Initially, we all came to the table with our individual concerns that spanned 'chronic disease prevention versus treatment', to the challenges of innovating within the healthcare system that is now in place. Note: With a single-payer system, Canadians do not grapple with many of the issues that plague Americans.

Some of the questions that arose: 

  • Should we publish more failed experiments?
  • How do we include big pharma in a collaborative model?
  • Considering that the healthcare system will be overburdened in the future, how do we maximize happiness now and at the end of life?
  • Should students major in a question, rather than a discipline, to better confront the pressing issues of our time (e.g. global warming and diseases of lifestyle)?


In the words of one participant, Roni Zeiger, founder of Smart Patients, “We’ve heard a lot about crowdsourcing, or outsourcing work that one person would normally do to a large and often distributed crowd . . . but there is a related idea of a network of microexperts and how they amplify the collective intelligence of their members.” Much of his recent thinking is inspired by Reinventing Discovery by Michael Nielsen, especially the anecdote between the chess match of the world chess champion Garry Kasparov and quite literally the World—collectively solving problems by popular vote.

Zeiger continued, “Imagine if I summarized a question in a couple sentences +/- a photo, and it was immediately posed to 100 potential experts in my network, who are chosen on a per-question basis using a relatively simple algorithm that matches my question to their experience. And I am good enough a generalist to know which microexpert has the most pertinent recommendation."

CIO of Kaiser Permanente John Mattison also noted the need for diversity, with many different backgrounds and areas of expertise, with the potential of each member of the group to lead at any given time.

Visual artist and associate professor at the Rocky Mountain School of the Arts Bruce Price replied: “What you're describing is a murmuration.” With that, the metaphor of multi-species flocking was created for our group. Though flocks flock primarily to protect themselves, when there is a desire for food and sustenance, they will join forces with other species to forage.


Weaving, playgrounds, gardens, and transgenic dandelion metaphors emerged as metaphors from the various groups, firmly rooted in the earth around play and making. We continued to look skyward at murmuration patterns, movement, and directional shifts, and were obsessed with the conditions for flocking. (A starling at the window seemed to offer guidance.) Murmurations have one leader at a time, accommodating the shifting needs of the collective.

'Rules' for flocking are:

  • don’t fly too close
  • don’t fly too far
  • navigate toward the mean
  • do no harm
  • flee predators 

We adapted them to networks of microexpertise (though specific players, processes for serving up questions, and topics of microexpertise remained open):

  • ensure transparency of information and connections
  • offer the greatest access to and greatest accessibility of information
  • align incentives with the needs of multiple users

When we paired up with another group, whose metaphor was the play-garden, we added the following to optimize flocking:

  • maximize public value
  • reduce disparity
  • increase resilience
  • boost value (happiness)
  • ensure sustainability
  • incentivize collaboration
  • do not leave members behind
  • practice basketball-style assists
  • ensure an ecosystem with ample opportunities to connect
  • approach with curiosity and purpose
  • encourage mentorship
  • allow for one leader at a time with collaborative followers
  • teach everyone how to be a leader and a collaborative follower
  • include student feedback in all projects (not just academic)
  • establish pre-collaborative networks and a pilot (task force)
  • determine what influences/generates directional change
  • create a national advisory council and study benefits and risks
  • allocate public funds and principles to guide research
  • activate pay for performance

The salon ended with a synthesis of best practices from all six groups combined (as a transgenic dandelion seed floated by, and many more questions germinated), but that will the subject of a future post.