Unlocking Organizational Change: Learning from the Cultural Phenomenon of Dutch Cycling

The famous Dutch cycling culture didn’t always exist; it was designed. A look at how this came to pass can help us to understand what it means to transform culture and keep it healthy. There are lessons to be learned whether you’re building a bike culture or transforming your organization.

If you think of life in a Dutch city you probably have a picture of a bicycle in your mind. The Dutch are world-famous for their cycling culture and that image is projected around the world. It’s so common that even streaming series like Ted Lasso use this fact as a prop in an episode in Season 3. (see the video at the end)

It wasn’t always like this in the Netherlands. At one time, Amsterdam’s streets were a clogged mess of cars. This web series shows the pathway the Dutch chose and how it transformed itself from a car-dominated city to one where bikes rule the roads.

The benefits to the Dutch from their cycling are many and the amount of carbon it saves benefits the planet. (700 million tonnes per year, if you’re curious). The social, economic and health benefits of cycling have been measured and the results show enormous value from cycling to the Dutch population.

Cycling prevents about 6500 deaths each year, and Dutch people have half-a-year-longer life expectancy because of cycling. These health benefits correspond to more than 3% of the Dutch gross domestic product.

Fishman, Schepers, & Kamphuis (2015). Dutch Cycling: Quantifying the Health and Related Economic Benefits. American Journal of Public Health.

Cycling is now part of the identify of the Dutch, just as one time it was not. The difference: design.

Designing Culture

Design is an intentional act. It’s taking a situation and seeking ways to improve it through deliberative actions. That’s it.

The process of good design is more sophisticated than that. In the case of the Dutch and cycling,

  1. Leverage Opportunities and Crisis. The energy crisis of the early 1970’s was a major threat to the economy of the Netherlands. Some Dutch roads were closed one day a week to deal with fuel shortages, creating opportunities for different modes of transportation.
  2. Make it easier to do what you want, not what you don’t want. It sounds obvious, but the Dutch began to optimize their policies to make it easier to bike and less attractive to drive, especially in a private automobile. They didn’t ban things, they made the things they wanted more attractive. As more people cycle, bike use become safer, pedestrians and traffic are easier to coordinate, and you can build support infrastructure at a scale that’s not cost prohibitive.
  3. Organize Around Your Identity. Cycling isn’t just a way to get around, it’s part of the fabric of Dutch identity. Within two generations, the Dutch have taken the bicycle as a symbol of their culture and adopted cycling into their collective identity. “It’s just what we do.”

This process mirrors psychologist Kurt Lewin’s Unfreeze-Change-Refreeze model of change. Unfreezing is when a crisis or opportunity arises and you take action. Change comes by designing incentives to modify and amplify desired behaviours, practices and policies. Refreezing comes when we adopt a new identity around the results.

What’s important to note is that this is always re-evaluated. In the case of the Dutch, they continually see benefits from their new identity such as reduced congestion on streets (fewer cars per person), tourism and promotion of the identity, contributions to climate change targets, and a healthier population with sustained economic benefits as mentioned above.

An example where this doesn’t work is with the Canadian health care system. They saw a crisis and created a national funding system and regulations for healthcare in the 1960s and 1970s, they reorganized their systems around hospitals to address critical care issues, and soon Canadian’s used their ‘universal healthcare’ as a point outlining their identity. (Ask any Canadian to talk about Canada and, much like the Brits, healthcare is likely to come up – especially when comparing the country to their neighbours to the South).

The difference, as journalist Andre Picard points out, is that Canada’s not evolved this identity based on evaluative insights. It still has the same model of care developed 50 years ago for a population and healthcare context that’s vastly changed.

Crisis and Opportunities

Take your pick of the various polycrises in play globally and the many rapidly evolving opportunities emerging locally. The time to strategically develop a new or changed identity has never been better. If you’re looking to enhance your resiliency, maintain or deepen your impact, and set yourself up to meet the future challenges, this is a great time for culture change.

Like the Dutch cycling example, change comes from many sustained, persistent, and coherent actions toward a larger set of goals. They changed (or at least expanded) their identity to reflect who they wanted to be. The same approach goes for organizations.

Be strategic in your thinking (know where you want to go). Design within that strategy (create a pathway). Evaluate (get feedback). Sense-make (make decisions based on what you learn). Redesign (integrate your learning). Repeat.

The opportunity is there if you design for it.

Culture change is not to be feared. It can be done by looking at what you have, where you want to be, and designing in activities to build it. Let’s talk if you want help doing it for your organization.

I loved this episode.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: