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Photo by Adam Brimer from

Each summer for two weeks in early June tourists flock to Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee to witness one of the natural world’s magic shows: thousands of synchronized, blinking fire flies. Photinus carolinus, are the only species of “lightning bugs” in America that can sync their flashing light patterns, according to the National Park Service.

Some biologists believe that these bioluminescent displays of tiny points of light are part of the beetle’s mating games. Jonathan Copeland of Georgia Southern University describes it like this:

“A male firefly’s flash pattern is thought to be a request for a date, and each species uses a very specific pattern. Some keep it simple with one or two short pulses. Others perform elaborate aerial acrobatics and trace shapes with their tail lights.”

But when they join forces and transform their individual blinks into a chorus of light patterns, the females respond positively more than 80% of the time.

Whether you come to Northern Spark this year on a quest for romance or not, you can be part of a human/electronic swarm of syncing lights by participating in The Kuramoto Model (1,000 Fireflies), a project by artist David Rueter.

As I type this, Rueter is building 1,000 customized, interactive blinking LED devices outfitted with microcontrollers and radio units that allow them to mutually and observably synchronize when they near each other. We’ll disseminate the lights to bikers who will display the sync function as they ride from site to site at the  festival.

This project is created for cyclists rather than pedestrians for a reason. It aims to activate and transform the social networks and urban dynamics associated with cycling, by fusing this existing system with one biased towards synchronization. Grafting this artificial system of synchronized blinking lights onto a real-world urban transportation system does two things: first, it calls attention to the individual act of cycling as a component of a larger dynamic system with its own unique patterns and qualities, and second, it momentarily transforms that system through a subtle but pointed intervention in urban social space. Read more about Rueter’s inspiration here.

These devices, which look similar to conventional LED cycling safety lights, are available prior to the festival via a $10 donation to our Kickstarter campaign. The remaining lights will go fast on June 9, so pledge now to get one!

We’ll talk more about the organization of the blinking bike mobs at next Thursday’s bike-brainstorm happy hour.

Come June, while the Photinus carolinus of the Great Smoky Mountains flash collective messages of desire in the darkness, you too can express your love for art, urban spaces, and community at Northern Spark.

Modified LED bike lights