How Do You Get A Large Group To Change Direction?


Monday, 9.02pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted – William Bruce Cameron

Should we panic about the state of the world or not?

Take climate change, for example.

Are we doing enough about the problem or should everybody be doing more?

There’s a problem with the question in the first place – because it assumes that action takes place en masse.

It assumes that we collectively take action to change things.

But is that really the case?

After all, there are lots of schemes and rules and attempts to get people and organisations to reduce their impact on the environment.

Are they making a difference?

How can we tell?

The thing about social behaviour is that it’s can’t be easily reduced to an algorithm.

But maybe an algorithmic approach can help us understand what counts.

The problem of getting lots of people to change the way they act is like getting a large herd of cattle to change direction.

If you try to simulate such behaviour – the flocking, schooling and herding you see birds, fish and animals do – you find it’s possible to do it with quite simple rules.

The basic idea is that each member of the flock has to stay close to others in the flock without bumping into them or into obstacles in the environment.

When you program a herd of simulated creatures to act in this way the group moves together – wheeling and turning with no central control.

The movement emerges as those simple rules are followed by each member.

From that observation of physical movement it’s a small step to wonder if a change in hearts and minds is also an emergent property – something that happens when the rules individuals follow change, rather than the whole group learning new rules.

For example, when solar panels first came out they were expensive.

Few people had them and they needed subsidies to get installed – subsidies that are being phased out now.

Every new build these days, however, is going to have solar panels built in.

So what’s changed?

Is it the law, the business case or what people want?

And did they change at once or did the pressure to change build and build until the whole group changed direction?

The point, I suppose is that, if you want to have big change you first need to start with small ones.

That’s obvious, you say.

But what’s not obvious is whether or not we’re heading for disaster while we’re waiting for individual change to happen.

It’s tempting to assume that everything will go bad if we don’t try and change it in a big way.

But are all those large companies really trying their best to ruin the world we live in?

Or are they full of people who are trying to do the right thing but who are also looking around them trying to do what others are doing, worried about doing something too different in case they get left behind as the flock moves on?

I think if you assume that people are fundamentally good and try to do the right thing then the starting point is to focus on individual change rather than group change.

But we can’t change too much – so much that the group just sees us as outliers.

We have to move gradually in the direction we want – at a speed that matches what the herd is doing.

That’s the thing about changing direction – it doesn’t just happen all at once.

And it’s hard to escape the fact that it probably starts with you and with me.


Karthik Suresh

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