Distance, operation overlap, sensory cues, and frequency of positive interactions have an influence on the probability individuals will maintain social ties and collaborate together. People tend to collaborate with stronger ties in their networks. This is why cities matter for economic development. While individuals and organizations can work together over a large distance, the closer they are the greater the chance they will collaborate with one another and maintain ties. Research on the effects of distance on collaboration has concluded collaboration drops off significantly between one-quarter to a mile. Companies in the same industry located less than a mile of each other experience ten times greater information flow than those located two to five miles apart. After five miles, knowledge flow drops off continually at a lesser rate. Interestingly specific industries become more concentrated than others.
This proximity effect on collaboration and network maintenance is predominantly a result of reduced cost. By reducing the time it takes to get together, incorporating tie maintenance into someone ’s daily routines, or making it easier to find new people, costs and risk are reduced. Unless there is a significant motivation to overcome the barrier of cost and time, convenience will prevail. Time is a finite resource, and as the number of choices grow, it becomes increasingly hard to accommodate everything one wants to do. Proximity lowers this friction and increases the chance one will show up. When daily routines don’t overlap, additional friction is added making it harder for someone to participate in the ecosystem outside of their daily sphere of operation. It is no surprise then that the highest collaboration and knowledge transfer rates happen within distances equating to those reflecting the highest probability of people willing to bicycle and walk for transportation.
Walking, biking and transit are important modes of transportation that enable idea flow, passive tie maintenance and increase the potential of forming new ties. Walking and biking enable one to interact with those they pass by and are at speeds where one can notice individuals. Travel by single-occupancy vehicles have the opposite effect and separate us from others. Traveling by car often limits our interaction to our strong close ties.
The quality of the environment influences the potential of walking and biking. First, it needs to be safe, and second it has to be comfortable, and third, it has to be interesting enough to encourage people to walk. The amount of interest a street has to entertain us will increase the distance people are willing to walk. This interest is described as “pedestrian entertainment” by noted urbanist Steve Mouzon. It includes the quality of the buildings, active edges, and most importantly people. People are attracted to people. Barriers such as steep topography and highways can easily truncate this distance and cut off areas from one another. Additionally, transit offers similar opportunities for one to bump into others maintain ties through repeated interaction.
A mix of uses that attract people within a given district amplify the benefits of proximity as it relates to collaboration and tie maintenance. Focal spaces within a district also known as “third places” are those places where everyone regularly overlaps with other another outside their home or office. These could be a coffee shop, public space, or service related business such as day care or dry cleaner. In addition to maintaining networks and encouraging collaboration, these places also infuse serendipity into the environment by frequently bringing large groups of people together.
In the next post, we will explore the importance of serendipity in the physical environment and how to increase its potential.