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Animal development is orchestrated by spatio-temporal gene expression programmes that drive precise lineage commitment, proliferation and migration events at the single-cell level, collectively leading to large-scale morphological change and functional specification in the whole organism. Efforts over decades have uncovered two 'seemingly contradictory' mechanisms in gene regulation governing these intricate processes: (i) stochasticity at individual gene regulatory steps in single cells and (ii) highly coordinated gene expression dynamics in the embryo. Here we discuss how these two layers of regulation arise from the molecular and the systems level, and how they might interplay to determine cell fate and to control the complex body plan. We also review recent technological advancements that enable quantitative analysis of gene regulation dynamics at single-cell, single-molecule resolution. These approaches outline next-generation experiments to decipher general principles bridging gaps between molecular dynamics in single cells and robust gene regulations in the embryo.