Networks are the way in which knowledge and know-how flow through the city's innovation ecosystem. A city’s innovation capacity is dependent on the ability of its network to reduce the cost of tie formation and increase the speed of knowledge diffusion. The less time and cost to develop and maintain network ties the more complex tasks and the diverse mix of industries its ecosystem can sustain. The large portion of capital within an economy is embedded in individuals as “human capital.” The value of the ability for people to cooperate is known as “social capital.”
Trust is the foundation of "social capital". It reduces the risk of working with others and increases the ability for people to connect to the network. This reduced risk directly affects the cost of doing business within an ecosystem. It not only affects the economic output of the city but also a company’s bottom line. When trust is low, there is a greater need for overly complicated and onerous legal mechanisms to ensure each parties protection. This friction inherently slows transactions and business development. A higher level of trust enables cooperation and tie formation. Research has shown that societies with lower levels of trust tend to have economies that are built on family ties rather than diverse networks of people.
While the level of trust between citizens is often ingrained within the city’s culture, other factors contribute to trust between individuals and the likelihood they will form social bonds. They include shared social focus, common friends, and mutual interests. A social focus could be a faith community, workplace, or child’s school. Share friends transfer an implicit trust. Mutual interest or characteristics are summed up by the familiar adage “Birds of a feather flock together.” Similar experiences, backgrounds, and interest are touchstones that can elicit interaction resulting in long-term relationships. These characteristics of tie formation increase the probability we will trust them.
The mechanics of tie formation among strangers involves four seemingly simple steps that can lead to the establishment of trust. These are the latent ties within a network. The general level of trust within the community will either facilitate the process or impede it. The four steps include awareness, frequency, interaction, and establishing trust. They are based on Rick Gannis’ stages of neighborhood tie formation described in his book “From the Ground Up: Translating Geography into Community through Neighbor Networks”.
Inherently we don’t know a lot about a stranger. We often rely on heuristics to determine the intent or background of any individual with whom we share proximity. Most of all we adhere to the implicit social contract of civil inattention. Civil inattention is the unsaid rule that we acknowledge each other’s existence and respect each other’s privacy. It is a powerful barrier that separates people even when in the presence of one another. This behavior can be observed when standing in line or taking an elevator. Most people keep to themselves. However, for two people to have any chance of interacting they must be spatially available to one another. The probability of one meeting is affected by the distance and number of individuals between them. It is no surprise then that we tend to have more social ties with those who are in our sphere of operation than those who are not. The closer people are, the greater chance they will form a connection.
This "sphere of operation" is defined by the distance of a person's field of view and hearing. This equates to approximately 30ft from an individual. Imagine an invisible boundary that surrounds you as you move. The overlap of the sphere of operation is where potential face-to-face interaction is possible. The design of the urban environment, architecture, and arrangement of uses have a considerable influence on this overlap and our ability to see one another. Transportation choices can also affect the overlap and potential of these connections forming. Walking lends itself to greater opportunity to interact with far more people than a personal vehicle. How long you share space increases the probability of the depth and quality of your network. Research has demonstrated almost 20% increase in the chance of a connection forming with every 100ft of overlap in the daily routines.
While overlap is the first step, the frequency of this overlap further influences the potential of connections between people. Over time as individuals see each other in the same locations, there is a recognition that the other is not a threat and you have something in common. The location could be a coffee shop, park, bus, or office lobby. Feeling safe and the increase in the frequency of seeing someone can result in us making the other more likable as long as our sharing of space is a positive experience. In the book Happy City, Charles Montgomery recounts an experience of Rob McDowell, a diplomat in Vancouver who lived in a high-rise and later moved into the townhouses below. He describes the lack of social ties in the high-rise and attributes it to never seeing the same people in the elevator. His experience is contrasted with his observation of interactive nature and community of the residents in the townhouses at the base of the high-rise. He concludes frequent meetings and the opportunity for people to safely observe each other from their porches led to a closer community as they developed social ties through frequently observing one another that led to interaction.
Interaction is the next stage in tie formation. Frequency helps immensely in lowering the barriers to interaction, but it isn’t a requirement. To initiate an interaction between strangers and overcome the barrier of civil inattention an external stimulus or motivational force is typically required. William Whyte, a noted urbanist, and author, describes this as triangulation. This stimulus links two individuals and provides a common focus for conversation. Examples include performances, art, dogs, children, food, or a shared experience (i.e. power outage, witnessing an accident) and become a conduit of conversation. The novelty of the stimuli amplifies this effect.
Context also contributes to the chance of interaction by priming individuals to be open to connecting with others. The probability of conversation is increased in instances where there is an implicit suggestion or expectation of interaction, particularly in social settings. The design of the environment can initiate this priming by communicating a language of invitation encouraging individuals to interact. For instance, roundtables tend to focus attention and conversations inward with people that are familiar with one another. Longer rectangular tables allow for unrelated parties to sit without necessarily interacting, but offer the opportunity to connect with more people. As one asked to borrow a chair, movable tables and chairs lend another opportunity for interaction. These simple design decisions can incrementally add up and nudge people to positively interact.
These repeated positive encounters can build trust. In this trust, long-lasting connections can lead to knowledge exchange and expand the reach of the network. As we will see in upcoming posts proximity is a key factor in enabling these relationships and that face-to-face communication facilitates the transfer or complex information and amplifies social learning.