The Patterns of The Crowd

Nima Tahami
Nov 10, 2016 · 5 min read

Every person has their own routines and habits — whether it’s the specific time you take the bus, or the coffee shop you visit each morning. Since a lot of us live in densely populated urban areas, many of our daily routines blend and become a pattern of the crowd. The service industry has learned over time how to align their services with our patterns, but what about products?

It’s a Saturday afternoon and you’re driving to the mall with your friends. You finally get there, ready to park and go inside, when you’re suddenly hit with the sight of thousands of parked cars, and a lot of drivers looking to park theirs. You end up spending the next 15–30 minutes maneuvering between cars, going from one lane to another, and hoping that no one else is rushing to that one car that’s about to leave 2 lanes over.

We’ve all been there, and we’ve all seen that same parking lot empty, with barely any cars parked in it during business hours. Or maybe you’ve noticed how jammed the traffic gets in one direction on the same road, while cars going the other direction are quickly passing by on nearly empty lanes.

This might seem ordinary at first, but have you ever thought about why the world is structured that way? Why is the line at the coffee shop next door sometimes way too long, and sometimes completely empty? Why are some stores open 24 hours a day, and some for only 8?

Almost everything in the universe has a pattern. These patterns are what determine not only how we behave, but how we ourselves create patterns that impact how other people behave.

Let’s take a closer look at the road example:

The Roads Half Empty

Roads are an example of a limited resource that we have, because there is only so much of it available. Sure, construction companies are always working to make them more efficient and accessible. But the point is that the same number of roads always exists.

Yes, we can always build more roads in our cities, but we’re just adding onto what’s already in place. So when we have rush hour in one direction and no traffic on the other, the same number of lanes as always are still allocated for both directions. The number of lanes are constant, independent of how people behave — and their demands (i.e. what time most of us want to take the same road).

The Long Food Lines

On the other hand, we have patterns such as lines at a fast food store. A fast food store mainly runs a service, serving people food as quickly as possible. And services, in general, are closer to a more efficient way of dealing with patterns. Sure, there are limitations and it’s nowhere near perfect, but it works better than a constant solution. The reason is: Services have the flexibility to allocate more resources as demand rises. Local businesses that operate 24 hours a day can allocate 3 cashiers at noon or more on busier days, when demand is high, and allocate only 1 cashier at midnight, when demand is low, on a usual basis.

But What’s Usual?

The thing is, “usual basis” isn’t always the case when it comes to people. Collectively, we like to behave in certain patterns on one day, and other patterns another day. Perhaps it has a lot to do with what is going on around us, which gets more complicated, the more you dive into it.

As an example, airline companies do their best to beat this unusual pattern of ours all the time by selling more tickets than there are seats available on a flight, and that’s exactly how they maximize their profits. Studies show that 5–10% of passengers simply don’t show up for their flight for whatever reason. In return, airlines have found a way of aligning their business with our patterns, despite the few incidents where there is a mess up. Uber does the same thing by charging a higher price, known as “Surged Price”, when demand is too high for the number of available drivers in the same area, encouraging more people to drive in that area to meet those demands.

Services are able to flexibly supply, aligned with the patterns of the crowd.

Services align with our patterns, but what about products?

We see that there are many patterns out there that we behave in, and a lot of services are slowly learning how to identify those patterns, and find the right balance of allocating enough resources to align their services with our patterns. But what about our products? What about the hundreds of millions of houses we leave empty while we go on vacations? Or our parked cars, collecting dust and depreciating in value while we’re at work?

Can we somehow take the resources that are constantly available to us — 24 hours a day — and meet them with the patterns of the crowd to make something sustainable, efficient, and useful?

Can we somehow only own and use products for that one hour or two in which we really need them for, and perhaps allocate more time if we need to? Wouldn’t that be better for society as a whole if we allocated resources only as much as we need them for? And maybe share resources with others when we don’t really need them, so others can get their needs met as well.

If you want to read more, check out Aligning Our Products with Our Patterns, the part two of this post where I answer these questions.

Thanks for reading,

Special thanks to Mohsen, Arshia, Sam, Matthew, Clement, Muaaz, Selina, and Nick for editing and reviewing this post.

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