The invisible fabric of social cohesion

How to promote social cohesion and belonging in our neighbourhoods through Internet and why centralized corporate architectures, as twitter or airbnb, cannot.

We’re so used to seeing the world from the point of view of institutions, that the most important things are hidden from us. We all “feel” it when a neighborhood or a city begins to decompose, even before anybody tells us to only call “trusted” taxi drivers, not to be on the street after six in the evening, or that we have to pay the rent in cash. It may even be that a society, like in many countries in eastern Europe before the fall of the Wall, is not insecure simply because the repressive capacity of the state prevents security, but because it is so decomposed that as soon as the State withers, the vacuum is immediately filled by organized crime of a new kind that, to everyone’s surprise, is woven into the culture overnight.

vidaIt’s true that it’s difficult to define, because even though it can be measured, it’s produced in a space so intimate that the crude tools that a sociologist or a city hall has can’t do it. But it’s there.

It’s there when we leave our child in the care of the neighbor to go and do some last-minute shopping; when the cashier tells you “you can pay me tomorrow”; when we trust a kid from the neighborhood school to give us private classes, or when there is always someone quicker with their wallet than the neighbor who lost his job when it’s time to buy a round.

All these micro-interactions between people, outside of any institutional framework, not only start from a general trust in the surroundings, they also build it. If we listen to the studies that massive businesses do of their customers, each positive experience earns the trust of one person, but each dissatisfaction, each negative experience, alienates nine. Which is to say, for the fabric of social cohesion to be strengthened, at least nine out of ten interactions with the neighborhood have to be satisfactory.

This means that, if we want strengthen the fabric that sustains social cohesion, the best possible strategy is to increase the number of interactions based on sharing between people, while we also create theconditions so that less than 10% go badly.

Space, identity and the logic of connection

bilbao barriosBut we can’t bring everyone into a big plaza to do that. The panopticon, a building in which everyone sees everyone, functions as a control mechanism in prisons and schools, when there is a watcher and fear of that watcher. When there is not, as we’ve seen with Twitter, the result is the devaluation of conversation, a culture of being “on edge,” and recurrent and sometimes terrible episodes of harassment.

But even in cases where there is effective control, like in many centralized services of the “sharing economy,” trust is placed in a third party, the organizing business, not in others. That’s why they have not had a positive impact on urban identity. And that’s also why, looking at the city, the natural space for sharing is the neighborhood, not the city as a whole.

But neighborhoods are not isolated entities, nor should they be. Any strategy to develop “sharing” in a neighborhood also has to promote “going outside,” understood as a projection of that trust that we’re looking to maximize by supporting daily sharing. The technical solution is nothing more than a replica of the way in which networks grow in the real world, a mechanism called “federation.” In the end, something as simple as knowing about someone requires someone from our broader environment to give them some minimal trust. Then we will be able to choose if we also want give it to them or not, but either way, they will be able to come up in our conversations.

A strategy to develop social cohesion in neighborhoods

lamatrizLet’s take neighborhoods as cells of a distributed structure, and let’s federate them with each other. Let’s include everything that the “sharing economy” has taught us, all those demands that we know that are there because there are already dozens of centralized platforms trying to turn them into businesses: from car-sharing to get to work to exchanging hours of language practice, from offering babysitting to offering hospitality to people who speak other languages or are part of our hobby network. And let’s add all those microentrprenuers who bring food to your office or make a website for you. And life-long businesses that want provide services or set up activities. Let’s turn them all of them into more forms of communication on a virtual network, the same way we share photos or videos. And let’s add to all that, like in Daniel Suarez’s novel, a mechanism that allows us to identify those neighbors who are most active in collaborating with others, most ready to lend a hand.

Wouldn’t that be a true “sharing city,” a “smarter” city, than than the ones the corporate giants are installing? And above all, wouldn’t it promote the development of sharing, of small daily gestures made with community spirit, of cohesion and of the feeling of belonging?

Translated by Steve Herrick from the original (in Spanish).

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