*First broadcast on June 2, 2022.
Claudio Feliciani is a Swiss-Italian scientist whose main interest is the movement of crowds. He worked alongside 3 Japanese scientists on a study that examined why people bump into each other when some of them are looking at a smartphone. It won an Ig Nobel Prize, which honors research that first makes you laugh, then makes you think. In a Japanophiles interview, Feliciani tells Peter Barakan how he ended up in Japan, and why he finds crowds so fascinating.
Hello and welcome to Japanology Plus.
I'm Peter Barakan.
Today we present one of our
You probably recognize the famous crossing
in front of Shibuya Station.
It's become a kind of symbol of Tokyo
over the last decade or so.
Every few minutes, the lights change
and large numbers of people
cross here from every direction.
My guest on the program today
is a scientist
who conducts research into
the collective movements of crowds.
In 2021, a study that he was involved in
was awarded an Ig Nobel prize,
which honors achievements that first
make you laugh and then make you think.
Our guest this time is Claudio Feliciani,
a scientist from the Italian-speaking
region of Switzerland.
He studies the rules and mechanisms
that affect the movement of crowds.
-Hi! Nice to meet you.
-Hey, Peter. Nice to meet you, too.
Not...not that much of a crowd today.
No, not so many people today.
Ever since COVID, really.
This may be a bit more
Shall we go?
Yeah, let's go.
The Ig Nobel Prize—
a parody of the Nobel Prize—
was founded in 1991 by a US magazine.
It honors a wide variety of
unusual and humorous research.
A study proving
the slipperiness of banana skins
was a previous winner
in the Physics category.
A winner in the Chemistry category
showed why onions make us cry.
And this study showed
why objects appear smaller
when you bend over
and look between your legs.
It was awarded a “Perception” prize.
Feliciani contributed to research
that won a “Kinetics” prize.
He worked alongside
three Japanese scientists.
They were joint recipients of the award.
First of all,
congratulations on your Ig Nobel Prize.
And what do they
actually give you for the prize?
A lot of money, actually.
Ten trillion dollars from the Zimbabwe.
Ten trillion dollars!
I can remember those days
of inflation in Zimbabwe.
But that's kind of a cool prize, though.
Yeah, that was a cool prize.
And how much is it worth?
I think it's not used anymore.
But even if you will use it,
it's probably one dollar.
So it's not worth as it seems.
And do you get a trophy?
Of course. Yeah.
So that's the trophy.
So we got the PDF,
we had to print it out...
Oh, you had to...
Okay. It's kind of fun, though.
That was fun, yeah.
Feliciani and his colleagues examined
why people bump into each other
when some of them
are looking at their smartphones.
In an experiment,
two groups walked past each other:
on the first occasion
no one had a smartphone.
On the second occasion,
three people at the head of one group
were looking at smartphones.
Here, nobody is using a smartphone,
and both groups start walking
at the same time.
They naturally form orderly lines,
and move efficiently.
But what happens when
three people at the head of one group
are looking at their phones?
The phone users nearly bump into
the oncoming pedestrians,
and the flow of people is disrupted.
The study showed that when some members of
a crowd are looking at their smartphones,
people can't successfully predict
each other's movement,
and collisions are more likely.
Did you do the experiments just in Japan?
-Yes, we only did it in Japan, yes.
What were the biggest takeaways from it?
So when people make lanes,
of course, they have to look around.
So you have to understand
what other people are doing
to predict whether you
should move right or left.
I think you have been very commonly
in this kind of situation that
you try to walk through somebody else,
and that person move left,
and you move right,
so you're in the same direction,
and then you're like,
should they go right? Should they go left?
So in doing these experiments
with people on the smartphone.
Basically these people were not able
to communicate their intentions
were looking at the smartphone.
So they were not able to move their eyes
because they were looking down.
And also the people
coming from the other side,
they were not able to understand whether
they are probably moving left or right.
And so by introducing these kind of
people that are distracted,
we kind of proved that
in order to have this kind of lanes,
there must be some kind of
So that means that I,
with some hidden messages,
I show you the direction
in which I'm trying to move.
You understand that direction
and you tell me,
okay, I understood it,
I moved to the other way.
So when there is not this kind of
and only one person is able
to try to read or understand,
which work very well in the crowds,
are not able to work anymore.
Is it a bit easier to understand now?
Yeah, I kind of get it.
I'm wondering what kind of
applications that would have.
Well one of the very first
direct applications is that
you should not use the smartphone
when you're walking.
So that's probably obvious.
And I think maybe that's also one of
the reasons why we got the prize, because
we did that research to demonstrate
something which is very obvious.
There probably was no need to do
such a research to demonstrate that.
But a more indirect application
is also... for example
in the frame of automatic driving.
So now we are talking about cars
that will be able to drive by themselves,
or no pilot.
So you can sleep in the car
and the car is taking you where you want.
Now the current approach is
that cars have a lot of sensors
which can understand
the environment behind.
So like people, trees,
the signs on the road, and so much.
And will drive based
on what they see behind.
But in the case,
like for example for a crosswalk,
you have no communication with the people.
So the car is able to understand
where people are.
Maybe they're also able
to understand their intention,
but they're not able to say to the people,
“We want to stop,” or like,
“We're going to move left or right.”
So that is probably going to make
the traffic more congested
because as we showed,
if there is no mutual communication,
so if the car do not show their intention
and people are not able to understand
what the car want to do,
is not probably to going to be
as smooth traffic.
And so car is probably
the easiest example because
I've been talking about that.
But there are also some research
which is trying to
make robots which move inside a crowd.
For example, assisting elderly
when they want to do shopping.
For example, there is a small robot
which is following them to
take over the shopping bag and stuff.
And if that robot is not able to
move inside the crowd
as a normal person would be doing,
they're not actually
making the situation better,
but they're making it worse,
because they may stuck,
they may collide with people.
So in that case as well,
they should communicate
their intention to the other people
to have some kind of
Claudio Feliciani comes from Ticino,
a Swiss town
not far from the Italian border.
He loved cars from a young age,
and dreamed of becoming an inventor.
He studied mechanical engineering
at a Swiss university.
After completing his undergraduate degree,
he went to Australia to study English.
The people he met there
inspired an interest in Japan.
And while I was in Australia,
actually in my class,
almost all of the people were from Asia.
So in Switzerland we don't have...
we have many foreigners
from other European countries.
But we don't have many Asian people.
So it was the first time for me to be
in the middle of the Asian culture.
I got in kind of interest
in the Asian culture.
And also something
which was probably also quite relevant,
even my professor, so my English teacher,
he was...he's an Australian,
born in Perth, raised in Perth.
But he had just been back from after 13
years of teaching English in Kyoto.
So I had a lot of Asian people in my class
and even the teacher, who was Australian,
was talking about Japan all the time.
So you got curious.
So I got curious.
So maybe I should go and see
how is Japan from the inside. So...
As a postgraduate student,
Feliciani spent a year in Japan,
on a study abroad program
run by his university in Switzerland.
He spent the first three
months at a language school.
It was a school by
the Ishikawa Prefecture.
So we had to learn Japanese language,
but also we had, like, to do some pottery,
or we went to see
traditional places, the temples.
So it was good because
we had also the opportunity to
learn about the Japanese culture,
traditional Japanese culture.
How much language
were you able to learn in three months?
Actually, I was a bit surprised
that after three months
I was able to speak to,like, children.
Even that is quite good
for three months, yeah.
I was staying with a Japanese family.
So I was surprised that
it's not that difficult as it seems.
The Japanese language.
I don't know about you.
Maybe you have an aptitude for languages.
Did you have to speak
all three Swiss languages?
I didn't have to,
but I was somehow forced to.
Because I'm from the south of Switzerland,
which is a very small region
in which people speak Italian.
It's about 5% to 10% of
the population, so it's minority.
So if you want to study
in some good university
or like just in some university,
or if you want to work in
some kind of big company,
you have to learn either French or German.
you spent three months in Kanazawa.
You learned a fair bit of Japanese.
What did you do for the rest of your year?
Then I got accepted into
a Japanese company, in Osaka.
And I moved there and I worked into
that company for nine months.
What were you doing there?
I was doing research on materials,
So very different to what I'm doing now.
And after that year, did you leave Japan?
But I said maybe if I could stay another
one year and another two years more,
I can be better in Japanese.
I can learn more kanji.
So I decided to ask to
work for that company.
Previously an intern,
Feliciani now became a full-time employee.
But after a few years,
a desire to study the movement of crowds
led to PhD study at a
prestigious Japanese university.
And you went to Tokyo University?
Any particular reason
why you chose that one?
It's a hard university to get into;
at least that's its reputation.
But in my case, I didn't really
want to go into Tokyo University,
it was more that I was interested
about doing the research on crowds.
And actually the professor,
who is more known in Japan
for doing this kind of research,
happened to be into Tokyo University.
So I wanted to go into that lab
to work with that professor.
So it wasn't really a choice
of the university.
The professor in question is
His pioneering research looks at crowds,
He made his name by showing that
highway congestion can be alleviated
if cars simply keep a set
distance from each other.
In Japan, Nishinari's insights are being
put to use in many different situations.
At an airport, for example,
he used data such as flight arrival
times and passenger walking speeds
to determine the ideal number of staff
at immigration desks.
His work led to the development
of a system to reduce congestion.
As a result, waiting times
at immigration fell dramatically.
Studying under Nishinari,
Feliciani completed his PhD
and is now a project associate professor
at the university.
He contacted me,
saying he was interested in my research.
And when we met, I discovered that
he'd put a lot of thought into it.
For example, he had considered
congestion in train stations.
Stations in Japan can get very crowded,
and so I think his interest was shaped
by personal experience.
That gave me a sense of his passion
for the science behind congestion.
I myself have been studying
that for nearly 30 years.
Claudio had heard about my work, and
decided to contact me about it directly.
He did the entrance exam,
and an interview.
I could see how talented he was.
So I looked after him,
right from the first year of his PhD.
He worked with me, at my lab.
So had you been interested in
movement of crowds from before that?
When I was a student, I...
so my very previous background
is about mechanical engineering,
when I was a bachelor student,
and I specialized in fluid dynamics.
So, still kind of, flowing things.
And later I moved to nuclear engineering
because I liked theoretical physics.
But still I'm more
on the application side.
So for me, it was a nice combination
between theoretical physics,
all the neutrons, all the stuff moving
inside the reactor, and engineering,
because you have to... all the cooling,
all the flow, moving around the water.
As a high school student,
I always had a lot of interest about
philosophy, social science, psychology.
So I was not that kind of
like pure mathematician
that is only interested in equations.
So I always had this kind of
So science, hard science,
but also like society, or like,
more like soft science,
to say... human science.
So originally your background
was all in natural sciences,
but then you switched
to doing crowd movement.
Was there something
that led you to make that change?
So I was in Japan during the nuclear
accident, which happened ten years ago.
And... so at that time, I realized that
there is some kind of misunderstanding
and natural science or engineering.
So from one side,
people try to push the technology
to make it better, more efficient.
But sometimes there is no understanding
of how people feel about the technology.
Since I was always interested about
society and human sciences...
but still I love mathematics and physics,
I decided that maybe I wanted to study
something which is somehow in the middle.
Because I was living in Japan,
in which you see a lot of people
everywhere, you see big crowds everywhere,
I noticed that if you look at the way
people move in a big number,
it's not that different
from the way fluids move.
So I said, okay, maybe it could be
interesting to do some comparison
between the way people move in groups and
the way fluids move, like in the water.
And I discovered that, in fact,
there is already people
doing that kind of research.
There is an established community
doing that kind of research.
And so that's
how I jumped into that field.
One of the many projects Feliciani
is currently working on
involves a question that came up during
his Ig Nobel Prize-winning experiment.
When people move past each other,
it's clear that they are
communicating in some way.
But how exactly is that
information being exchanged?
A fellow member of
his research group is studying this
by recording pedestrians' eye movements,
using cutting edge technology.
Here it is.
It looks like a pair of glasses.
If we get our participants
to wear this device,
we can record what they're looking at.
Well, it senses movement by applying
infrared rays to the eyeballs.
So we can measure quite precisely.
Feliciani is also contributing
to a national project.
It looks at ways to facilitate the
movement of a large number of people.
I really depend on Claudio.
our work would grind to a halt.
In all kinds of different discussions,
he's very astute.
He is well informed, and experienced.
He's knowledgeable about culture, too.
He knows that for our research,
psychology especially is very important.
When a person is moving in a crowd,
what are they thinking?
It's as much about humanities as science,
and Claudio is interested in both aspects.
We look at human psychology,
and we record people's movements.
But to support our work,
he also decided to study crabs!
Some researchers focus
solely on the psychology of crowds.
He studies crowd psychology and crabs.
That scope is one of his key strengths.
Feliciani is currently working with
researchers in zoology and psychology.
Their shared objective is
to address social issues in Japan.
Working with animals, something that
is very well known in the animal behavior,
is an experiment
that has been done in the '60s
by an American researcher, John Calhoun.
He created like
some kind of paradise for rats.
There was like a warm environment,
they had food, they had water,
they had everything they wanted.
And what he noticed is that
when the population started to grow,
the behavior of the crowd,
started to change,
especially their sexual behavior
started to be a bit weird.
So you had some crowds
who started to do like hikikomori.
Became social recluses.
And also the females were not able to
raise the children any more in a good way
and many children died.
Do you say “children” for the rats?
Babies, I guess, yeah.
So many babies died
when they were very young,
in a few cases, it happened...
the population started to decrease,
and it even disappeared.
So the rats were not able to
multiplicate anymore, and they died off.
Yes, that is very strange.
That is very scary in its own way.
And then many people said, okay,
this happened to rats, so probably
this is also to happen with people.
So we should not live in cities what are…
which are much crowded.
And everybody has been
trying to do some research
to try to find some kind of indicator
which can show that we're
getting closer to that kind of situation.
Nobody eventually found some indicators.
But something which was
interesting for me is that
the first indicator in rats
that the behavior was changing
was some change in the sexual behavior.
And a friend of mine
who is studying sexuality,
she did her research on
the sexless phenomenon in Japan.
So I did the kind of link
between both studies.
And I said, okay, maybe the fact that
in Japan you have the sexless behavior
which has been discovered in Japan,
which has been studied
in Japan for many years,
I said maybe
that could be related to the fact that
Japan has a very high population density.
And so we started doing
our research to try to understand
if that is related to the high
population density that you have in Japan,
or simply like a sexless
phenomenon is not studied abroad.
So that could also be a reason,
so that's a new research I started recently,
which has also to do with crowding,
but on a much bigger scale.
So not simply a crosswalk
but like a whole town, a whole country.
Do you have any ideas on how the research
may be able to be used in the future?
So if you understand what is the most
important aspect in influencing sexuality,
you may be able to change a bit,
like the way cities are built
or like the way apartments are built
to make an environment in which
you feel less the effect of crowding,
the effect of population density.
So in which... by living in the same city,
by having the same conditions,
you don't get that much exposure
It's not very direct, but...
We can give some hints to politicians,
or like, to policy makers,
in which direction they should move.
Feliciani's interests are broad,
but he finds crowds, in particular,
to be endlessly fascinating.
I think crowds is very beautiful.
You cannot understand crowds by
only looking from a single point of view.
So for example, if you want to understand
why crowd accident occur,
because like in the Mecca
you had a lot of accidents,
that's really physics
because you have like human bodies
being pressed with each other.
It's also about medicine.
So like the kind of injuries
you can have in your body.
But then if you want to understand
the way people avoid each other,
that's cognitive science.
If you want to understand
the cultural differences,
it's more about psychology.
You have to know a bit of everything.
So I think it's very fascinating
because when I go to the conferences,
you can talk with people
who have a background in psychology.
You can talk with people
who have background in computer science,
because you have to simulate crowds.
So you can meet many different people
and you have a common point
to discuss about.
So it's helping a bit like
your mind, your point of view.
Do you feel comfortable being in a crowd?
So I love studying crowds,
but by being outside.
I love watching crowds,
but I don't want to be inside.
On these Japanophile interviews,
the last question is always the same one.
What is Japan to you?
Well, my question in a few words
is like, surprisingly real.
So surprising is the first emotion,
so the first impression.
When you start doing the comparison
between different cultures,
when you also start living in Japan
for a long time,
you understand that the difference
is not about black and white.
So there is not like
Japan is either black and white
and like Western society
are either black and white.
So it's not different
because there are only two ways.
It's simply a different color.
Because human beings,
they have like so many colors,
and Japan is one of them.
So it's different, but still,
there are millions of different colors.
So because of the nature of human beings,
because there are so many
hues and so many gradations,
Japan is only one of them.
So it's surprising at first,
but then you understand
this is no different from
any other place in the world.
So it's real, it's really human.
So that's my answer.
Okay. Thank you very much.