Contact FutureLearn for Support
Skip main navigation
We use cookies to give you a better experience, if that’s ok you can close this message and carry on browsing. For more info read our cookies policy.
We use cookies to give you a better experience. Carry on browsing if you're happy with this, or read our cookies policy for more information.

Skip to 0 minutes and 10 secondsOK. This was a very entertaining movie, right? Very often, when I show this movie to my students, most of them report in the beginning, oh, I will not join dancing. But later on, when you see the crowds joining in this party, then suddenly you feel different. You think, hey, actually, this is quite fun joining this activity. And this is typically the effect of normative influences, how you want to belong to a group. If you are really the first one doing something strange, like this guy dancing, you might feel a little bit awkward. But very critically, this does not apply equal to all people. People are different-- heterogeneous. A lot of people are conformists.

Skip to 1 minute and 6 secondsAnd conformists like to be similar to the people around them, not to deviate too much from what the crowd is doing. They feel safe when a lot of people make a choice for them. In contrast, there are also people that just don't care-- the nonconformist. And perhaps the guy starting to dance was a nonconformist, not being worried about social expel of starting to dance just because he likes dancing. Next to that, there are also anti-conformist people. Those are the people that really like it to be different than the group. Those are the people usually the first performing new kinds of behaviour. And they have the attitude of, look at me. I'm different than you.

Skip to 2 minutes and 3 secondsThese social motives differ a lot between people. And it's very important if you want to understand how new behaviours spread through a society that these different people play different roles. What the musician and philosopher Frank Zappa said, without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible. You really need people that deviate to have the possibility of exploring new successful behaviours.

Skip to 2 minutes and 38 secondsThis compliance and synchronisation of group behaviour has some very large advantages. Using the same technologies and using the same procedures really is helpful in our human society. For example, in this moment I'm talking English to you. It's not my mother tongue. But it's more effective in using the same language in science to communicate our ideas. And English happened to emerge as the dominating language in science. Driving left or right is also a matter of importance in traffic, of course. It doesn't matter too much if you drive left hand side or right, but it's better to do it all on the same side, right? Otherwise it would be quite a mess.

Skip to 3 minutes and 35 secondsSo our whole society, our cities, our organisations, are all built on these collective, synchronised behaviours. We have fashions and hypes and new products that spread through a society using these mechanisms. Also the beliefs that we share. The religions in certain areas are beliefs about political economic systems. They all emerge from interactions in society. Very often, that's very positive. But sometimes, these emergent phenomena cause problems that we sometimes are not even aware of. These are called lock-ins. And it's very difficult to get out of a lock-in. One of the standard examples of a lock-in is the keyboard that you're using. It's very likely that at this moment you are using the so-called QWERTY keyboard.

Skip to 4 minutes and 43 secondsBut have you ever thought why you are typing on a QWERTY type board? What's the use of it? Somebody has actually thought about this, right? What's the idea behind the QWERTY keyboard? In the next picture, you see a very old typewriter. And what you see is that the letters were being printed through a hammering system. The problem is, if you use certain letters in combination and they are close together, the hammers can be jammed up. To avoid that problem, they invented a keyboard layout that made sure that the letters that you used most in combination were at the largest distance on the keyboard. Problem solved. But why do we still use this keyboard?

Skip to 5 minutes and 40 secondsBecause this problem is apparently not relevant for computers nowadays. And we still use this old fashioned type of keyboard, which is far from optimal from typing speed. That's because it's a lock-in. Everybody uses a QWERTY. You're being released at home with using a QWERTY keyboard. And probably you will teach your children in the future to use a QWERTY keyboard. There are many of these kinds of lock-ins that have emerged in our society. One example would be the fossil fuel based economy. Our whole society is based on the burning of fossil fuel. The whole roads network, the fuel network is all based on these principles. It's very difficult to change that in a more sustainable way.

Skip to 6 minutes and 39 secondsOr think about the use of spreadsheets. Spreadsheets are used everywhere, and the numbers should always be correct. But are these spreadsheets always very logical? Isn't it a way of thinking in which some fundamental qualities are being outside of the spreadsheet? We all experience these problems, but it is very difficult to get away from the solution that everybody uses. So the big challenge if we are facing these kinds of lock-ins-- how to change that? Well, if there's not really a lock-in, you could start with generating a lot of communication. Because a lot of communication can start an emergent process. One beautiful example is, I think, the information of the iPhone.

Skip to 7 minutes and 42 secondsIn the following figure, you see the Fifth Avenue Cube Store in New York City. And one day-- to be precise, March 13, 2007-- this building looked like this. Hey. It was an iPhone. And at that time, the iPhone wasn't existing yet. What did Apple do? For just one day, they dressed up this store with the image of an iPhone. That's it. And it was genius. Because everybody started to ask, hey, what kind of device is that? It's a new device of Apple. And apparently, it has a kind of touch screen. What would be the functionality of this icon? What could you do with that icon? And a lot of people started to discuss on the internet.

Skip to 8 minutes and 40 secondsAnd basically, after March 13, the internet exploded of discussions on what this new device would be and what the possibilities were. Isn't that perfect marketing? Very cheap. Everybody was talking about it. And it created a lock-in. We're all addicted to the smartphone right now. Another example would be the inner city of my hometown Groningen. In the past, the general thought was that the centre of the city is the place where everybody meets, and obviously the traffic should be handled in the city city's central square. But with an increased traffic, this might cause problems.

Skip to 9 minutes and 30 secondsAnd then one day in the '70s of the previous century, some guys in Groningen thought, hey, what if we changed the layout of the city centre as follows? We make four different parts in the city centre and make it impossible to drive with a car from one segment to the other. Whoa. That caused some problems. A lot of people really protested, because they were basically losing their freedom of using a car. So again, you see that it was a problem to change this.

Skip to 10 minutes and 11 secondsBut persisting in this approach caused that a number of cars reduced in the city centre, and the whole centre of town became much nicer for cyclists, for pedestrians, and a new direction of grow was set in, and it made our city to one of the most pleasant cities for pedestrians and cyclists to be.

Skip to 10 minutes and 38 secondsSometimes-- very often-- it's much more difficult to escape from a large-scale lock-in. Think about our energy system, health care systems, transition to sustainability. Here we're dealing with very large systems where a lot of change is required. If these systems change, typically it usually starts with an increase with the turbulence in the system. Everything becomes insecure. And very often, large, old institutions run into problems. At this moment in time, we see that large energy companies are really struggling to survive in this transition to sustainable energy. But you also see that new initiatives emerge, usually small enterprises. And a lot of them do not survive, but some of them grow. And they grow into a new system.

Skip to 11 minutes and 46 secondsAnd here, you could say that not the strongest or the smartest survive. It's is usually the most adaptive that survives in these situations. Basically, to manage emergence, I always compare it with sailing. A lot of people in management are very keen on making predictions and waiting for the outcomes to become realistic. And basically, that's the same situation as setting out a course and going inside the cabin, having a coffee, and waiting for where the boat will end. Usually, it works quite fine. But in very turbulent situations, it's smarter to keep your hand on the wheel, because you have to be very adaptive in moving the system into the direction that you really want.

Skip to 12 minutes and 44 secondsAnd that also requires a good understanding of the dynamics of the system. So very often, these predictive models do not work, and you need to understand the dynamics in keeping the rudder in such a position that you will not get out of course. If you want to change course-- which is typical for a transition-- you also will face yourself with sudden changes with turbulences, with flapping sails before you find a new position where you can continue your travelling in a stable, sustainable way.

Emergence by human communication

This video explains the phenomenon in the dancing guy video. It gives other examples of emergent phenomena in human society and explains the problem of a lock-in, and how to change this.

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Decision Making in a Complex and Uncertain World

University of Groningen

Course highlights Get a taste of this course before you join: