When Dr. G. Keith Still attends a concert, he’s not focused on the fun of the event, but rather, at what point the crowd will reach a “crush point.” It’s only natural when you’re the world’s foremost expert on crowds and consult on massive events such as the Royal Wedding and the London 2012 Olympics.
The professor of crowd dynamics at Bucks New University in the United Kingdom spoke about the science and psychology of crowds (i.e., what makes Wal-Mart shoppers crush each other for that early-bird deal) at the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center Thursday night. The speech capped off a week-long huddle-up with Austin city officials and planners, who will use his models to organize Austin’s 2012 South by Southwest Music Festival and conference.
To understand crowd dynamics and prevent tragedies, it’s important to look back nearly 100 years to, of all things, what sank the Titanic, Still says. It wasn’t just that pesky iceberg.
“Yeah, an iceberg was part of it, but that’s what’s called proximal cause. That’s the thing that happened immediately before the incident,” he explains. “So people tend to look at things like that and say, oh, icebergs, we’ve got to protect all of our ships against icebergs. But the underlying cause was a lack of safety culture. They didn’t think the ship could sink. They didn’t have any contingency plans, hence, that risk that was sitting and lying in wait never gets picked up on.”
Plan ahead. It’s a pretty simple message, but when you’re dealing with tens of thousands—or even millions—of people packed into a tight spot like canned sardines, things can get a bit tricky. Crowd control is “a bit like stuffing an egg back into a chicken,” says Still, who also testifies as an expert witness for trials that involve crowd deaths, such as the case resulting from last year’s mass panic at the Love Parade music festival in Duisburg, Germany, that killed 19 people and injured more than 300.
“It only takes five people on one to crack a rib, crush a lung,” he says.
Austin, even with its myriad annual events, has remained immune to such disasters—so far. According to David Murray with the City of Austin Music Division, the worst thing to happen in recent history was an exploding propane tank at an Austin City Limits Music Festival. No one was injured. But this year’s SXSW attendance hit an all-time high of nearly 20,000, and with Austin being one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S., the crowds are primed to keep swelling. Many remember the mass chaos that broke out at the Death From Above 1979's SXSW show at Beauty Bar when far more people showed up than could gain entry, resulting in a police shut-down and rioter violence.
“There haven’t been any significant mass crowd injuries or fatalities [in Austin] on the scale we’re seeing around the world, but that latent risk, that iceberg, is still sitting there,” Still says. “So we’re looking at, what are these things that do need evaluating?”
In conjunction with the City of Austin, Still is collecting information from previous SXSW planners and attendees to paint a better picture of where the crowds form, how they move and how they react to change. “We’re capturing what happened in previous events to set up the best model for the future,” he says.
But controlling the masses isn’t just about scientific models, he adds. It involves psychology and even a bit of magic.
“When you come to a venue or an event, there are certain things that you’re expecting, that you’re looking for—the clues, the information, the signage, the maps, the diagrams. They all influence your behavior, so we tend to look at crowd dynamics as a science of using psychology to make people do the right thing rather than try and predict what they might do,” he says. “In other words, it’s like the art of the magician. If I want you to focus over here so I can pull the rabbit out of my hat, a stage magician knows how to focus a crowd’s attention.”
For more information about Still’s work, visit www.GKStill.com.