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Mammalian development is characterized with transitions from homogeneous populations of precursor to heterogeneous population of specified cells. We review here the main dynamical mechanisms through which such transitions are conceptualized, and discuss that the differentiation timing, robust cell-type proportions and recovery upon perturbation are emergent property of proliferating and communicating cell populations. We argue that studying developmental systems using transitions in collective system states is necessary to describe observed experimental features, and propose additionally the basis of a novel analytical method to deduce the relationship between single-cell dynamics and the collective, symmetry-broken states in cellular populations.