How Slime Molds Got Me Thinking about Better Design Principles and the Power of Race

I had just finished reading the amazing series of articles in the NY Time’s 1619 Project and was struck by the story of Atlanta’s horrendous traffic. Essentially, Atlanta suffers from the stupidity of a transportation system designed to keep black and white people apart. This has resulted in immense inefficiencies as roads have wriggled around neighborhoods to create physical barriers between places that don’t even reflect the racial Apartheid of 50 years ago. 

The next morning, I was having breakfast with an old friend when he mentioned a curious story of the Tokyo commuter rail system. Well-paid engineers and urban planners had spent endless hours devising the most effective ways to connect Tokyo to its outer suburbs. 

Afterwards, a group of university researchers wanted to run a test. They laid out the rail map and placed oat flakes at all the stops. Then, they released the slime mold. Now slime molds and other fungi are amazing organisms and they create intricate root systems to pass nutrients over long distances. 

At first the slime mold covered the map, but after several hours it began to pare down the redundant branches in order to create a highly-effective nutritional network. When the scientists compared the two maps, they were almost exactly the same!     

Such a simple design lesson. The natural order creates connections and harmony. When we introduce our toxic biases, we poison the system and live with the consequences for years to come. If only we could listen more to the humble slime mold.