How microbrews and lazy lawn games may save our social capital
In 1999, at the apex of online paranoia, digital bomb-sheltering, and purple Prince parties, Robert Putnam assembled a critical data analysis of our society’s growing insularity. Yet his call to arms, Bowling Alone: Collapse and Revival of American Community, ended up as a business plan for exploitive consumer and political separatists.
Today our increasing need to control overwhelming amounts of new information, and the instinct to narrow intimidating exposure to new cultures and technologies, have splayed our minds, wallets, and social networks open to control and manipulation for profit and power. Smart city data now streams into profiteers from the exponential growth of the connected city and the Internet of Everything. Add to this the more recent collapse of the commodity retail world into the digital, and the segregation of legitimate news from social media, and we have a genuine threat to any recognizable notion of “community.”
But also a solution.
There is little need to recite the dangers of polarization among an alienated citizenry. What once was limited to road-rage and bar-brawl defense of the “fairness” contract has spread to our tee shirts, news sources, retail choices, and understanding of empiric reality itself. Solutions tend to center on either complex policy changes that convert winners to losers (redistricting, educational requirements, voting restrictions, political manipulation) or simplistic platitudes that reinforce the immediately-satisfying, self-deceptive status quo (protest, exclude, shop your conscience, sue, #something).
There is, though, a tried-and-true third way, practiced by thousands of professionals every day, that offers long-term progress and community-building plus some copacetic side-effects, such as cleaner air and water, more affordable transit, predictability and reduction of shared facility costs, safer streets, and increased opportunities for work, play, and education. Inasmuch as the coining of era-specific terms for ancient ideas is the refuge of the lazy pseudo-intellectual, allow me to introduce “Shared Design.”
Shared Design represents the collaborative energy of proximity. Because we are physically and now digitally close, we can leverage the exponential power of empathy: What was abstract becomes personal; what was “other” becomes “us.” I refer not to a navel-gazing, altruistic empathy, but to the capacity to know your customers better and to tailor your business closer to their diverse and ever-changing desires. An empathy that sees a way to combine their skills and your resources for mutual benefit. An empathy that stirs a thousand layers of interactive, ordinary life into something powerful and innovative.
Behavioral Economics – the more clinical macro-theory underlying Shared Design – is, at its core,an exercise in quantified empathy. If our instincts overrule our minds most of the time, as Craig Lambert in the Harvard Magazinewould have us believe, then how are common standards born and perpetuated that can sustainably elevate our health, safety and prosperity?
Shared Design rejects such easy platitudes as “they vote against their own best interests” and replaces them with the long-term value of shared space that naturally stamps out the quick buck or a rush to the bottom with consensus-driven collisions of ideas that become new cultural norms. By way of empathy via proximity, Shared Design forces collaboration and innovation that also naturally weights ideas away from the organizer’s prejudices. In this “creative collision” environment, some ideas will still be short-sighted or just plain dumb, but win-win ideas will have a good chance to rise, fail quickly or, if proved, be sustained over time.
The greatest example of success here is the rise of the experience-based economy that has flourished in the slow-moving adaptation of commodity retailers. These small entrepreneurs and creatives intuitively understand the growing connection between fun and economic benefit. “Shoppertainment” provides the foundation of the larger community collisions around them, but without the Shared Design opportunity of visual, physical, and informational proximity to homes and offices, more meaningful community collisions cannot exist. Cornhole conversations and beer-garden debates are the bedrock of a thriving, connected community.
So how do we produce these Shared Design opportunities? A multi-cook kitchen must work for years to produce a place-based gumbo comprised of advocacy groups (housing, resource, business, poverty, cultural), urban designers, transit providers, land owners, governments of all sizes, educators, businesses, service providers, retailers, developers, architects, and champion anchors, both public and private. Some of these “ingredients” will add more flavor than others, and not all will love the resultant recipe, but the outcome will be an evolving stew that permits people from all walks of life the opportunity to offer products and services to a consumer base that is closer to their needs and more responsive to their wants.
Only such crafted environments will bring the wealthy capital controller, retirees, and eager entrepreneurs in greater physical and intellectual contact with skilled labor, students, and service providers. From the era of near-religious belief in how communities should be built to data-driven analysis from twenty years of post-suburban-sprawl Shared Design, research is emerging on the effects of “walkable neighborhoods,” “mixed-use,” “urban development,” “new urbanism,” “district design,” “transit-oriented development,” or a hundred other terms reflecting the same basic idea. (See Fig. 1.) It is in these half-mile districts – from the ancient Mesopotamian city-state of Ur to modern examples of transit-oriented design, ranging from 2,000 person low-rise neighborhoods to half a million vertical mini-cities – where all of the world’s great accomplishments, social progress, and disastrous tyrants were formed.
Data on the effectiveness of Shared Design has devolved into boring “ten steps to an engaged citizenry toolboxes” that only policy wonks and planners enjoy. These “toolboxes” (aptly named) are promoted through smart but decidedly unsexy organizations like The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, Reconnecting America, and MITOD, or the professionally snobbish self-promotion groups like my own AIA, APA, ULI, and CNU. Applauding such organizational efforts usually prompts a yawn, but the ideas contained in these 3,000-plus white papers have proven themselves the only long-term solution to a world hellbent on angry spin.
All of which is to say, that social capital is a true win-win investment of our efforts and cannot be left to professionals alone. The Shared Design goals of mixing uses, incomes, interests, races, religions, and public facilities to create the architecture for social and economic prosperity is the only truly sustainable option available. Change is painful; risk requires trust; trust is born in common experience; common experience is shared personal experience; personal experience requires proximity; and proximity must be curated.