So before we launch into the perceived advantages and disadvantages of the new American community called the Network let’s review what we’ve learned in the first two parts of the series.
Part 1 covered Where We Live. We learned about the Big Sort and increasing urbanization. America’s metropolitan areas are growing and because it’s easier than ever for Americans to live where they want, they’re sorting themselves into homogenous communities.
Part 2 covered How We Live. We learned about the old American community called the Township and how it was built on a foundation of strong middle ring relationships. Over the past several decades many American communities have made the transformation to a new type of community called the Network that is based on strong inner and outer ring relationships.
Understanding these changes is very important for Coliving companies as they try to create housing solutions for future American communities.
Now we’re finally ready for Part 3 that will answer the question that we ignored in Parts 1 & 2: SO WHAT?
Americans are more likely to live close to people who vote for the same political party they do. Smartphones and social media have allowed Americans to choose who they want to spend time with so they spend more time with closer connections. Americans don’t join traditional community clubs anymore.
Why does any of this matter? Are Americans individually better off after these changes? Have the changes been good or bad for the health of American communities?
These are extremely important questions and ones that I don’t believe enough Americans are paying attention to. I’d like to make two important points before we start discussing these questions.
First, we should stop glorifying or vilifying the “good ole days.” Network American communities aren’t better than Township communities and vice versa. As Marc Dunkelman mentions in Vanishing Neighbor we should move past the “obsolete conversation about whether community is decaying or being reborn… neither is the case – we’re transitioning from one architecture to another.”
Second, the magnitude of these changes is much larger than most people realize. Whatever your thoughts on foreign interference in the 2016 US presidential election, it should serve as a red flag that technology is advancing at such a pace that our society is having trouble keeping up. According to Dunkelman the same goes for the American community as the transformation of the past several decades “has come to affect everything from our propensity to innovate to our capacity to care for one another.”
These changes are substantial, happening quickly, and we need to start paying more attention.
Below we’ll take a shot at summarizing how the changes in Where and How Americans live have positively and negatively affected American communities.
American communities existing under the Network model have numerous advantages as compared to communities under the Township model. The three we’ll examine here are Comfortable Living, Social Movements, and the Strength of Weak Ties.
For individuals, life in a Network community comes with lots of perks that makes life easier. For example, Dunkelman proposes that in modern Network communities “Americans can shop more discerningly for what they want; they can associate more freely with whomever they like; they can live more exclusively among the neighbors they prefer. Each individual American now has much more choice in crafting the life that he or she wants.”
As perhaps the world’s loudest supporters of liberty and freedom, Americans would definitely classify “more choice in crafting the life they want” as an advantage.
Remember that the main cause of the Big Sort is market segmentation. Political parties, businesses, and churches have harnessed the power of market segmentation to better serve their voters/customers/worshippers and in the process have created more homogenous communities.
For the lifestyle of the individual, this is great news. As Bill Bishop mentions in The Big Sort, “the appeal of the Big Sort is powerful because consumers, believers, and citizens all benefit from living in homogenous communities.”
Economically living in homogenous communities means that businesses that cater to your specific wants are more likely to be close by. Politically it means you don’t have to disagree with your neighbor and can feel affirmation that your beliefs are correct. Religiously it means that you and your congregation are almost surely going to agree with what the pastor’s sermon each Sunday.
Later we’ll examine some disadvantages to homogenous communities, but for now it’s clear that Network communities make life easier for the individual.
Social movements in Township America spread through middle ring relationships and occurred over months or years. Social movements in Network America spread through outer ring relationships and occur over hours or days. In order to see this in action let’s look at social movements in Township and Network America.
The Civil Rights movement is arguably the biggest and most important social movement in the history of the United States. How did the movement happen? From Dunkelman’s perspective, “the civil rights movement was successful because the demand for equality spread through bonds that already existed” within American communities. Martin Luther King Jr. was a leader in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (a traditional Township social organization) and his message and ideas spread through the country mostly by word of mouth.
Fast forward five decades and the social movements on the national radar are the Tea Party Movement, Occupy Wall Street, and the Me Too movement. These movements did not gain national attention through discussions between neighbors; they spread through hash tags on social media.
According to Facebook in the first 24 hours of the #MeToo movement, “4.7 million people around the world… engaged in the ‘me too’ conversation, with more than 12 million posts, comments and reactions.” In the first day of the movement 45% of people in the US had a friend that shared a post containing the message ‘Me too.’ On the other hand, we can imagine that in the first 24 hours of the Civil Rights movement there were maybe a few meetings with a handful of people.
Can you imagine if the Civil Rights Movement or the Women’s Suffrage Movement had occurred within Network communities? For the most part social movements push the country forward; so in that sense, another advantage of Network America is its ability to efficiently spread social movements.
Mark Granovetter’s discovery of what he calls the “strength of weak ties” was one of the most groundbreaking social science theories of the twentieth century. While it is certainly counterintuitive to theorize that new ideas and behaviors spread first and fastest through weak relationships, that’s exactly what Granovetter discovered.
The effects of Granovetter’s idea have been well studied in a variety of fields including business. In his famous study of how people find jobs, Granovetter interviewed newly employed people in a Boston suburb asking them how often they saw the person who informed them about the job opening. He found that only 17 percent of people said they were “often in contact” with their source, 56 percent said they “occasionally” saw their source, and 28 percent said they “rarely” saw their source.
Granovetter then extrapolated this idea to communities and proposed that “communities with lots of internal bridges, even if they were flimsy ones, would be better off than places with social groups that were tightly knit internally but unconnected to other groups in the community.”
Recent research supports Granovetter’s theory on the importance of weak ties for the health of a community and this phenomenon is a massive advantage for Network America.
MIT grad and UC Berkeley Dean AnnaLee Saxenian asked why Silicon Valley added more tech jobs and created more global technology companies in the 1990s than the high-tech, academic powerhouse along Route 128 in Boston. She found “that people switched jobs in Silicon Valley often and with impunity. As they flitted from one office to another, they pollinated their new firms with ideas they’d gathered along the way. In Boston, Saxenian observed firms that were “more cylindrical, hardened, and isolated… there were fewer weak ties.”
Traditional business knowledge from the age of the American Township would say that getting great employees and keeping them for as long as possible will lead to sustained success. Perhaps this is still true in some industries, but Saxenian’s research shows the opposite is true in fast-moving industries that rely on rapid innovation.
Perhaps even more surprisingly, this phenomenon holds true at the city level. Most people would assume a positive correlation between social ties in a city and economic wellbeing. Or in other words, as social ties in a city are strengthened the capacity to innovate and economic wellbeing of that city would also be strengthened.
In Network America’s cities the correlation between social ties and economic wellbeing is negative.
If you’re like me you find the previous sentence extremely counterintuitive – but the research backs it up. Bishop and Cushing found that in American cities, “the tighter the social ties, the fewer the patents, the lower the wages, and the slower the rates of growth. The civic minded cities – those with crowded clubs and churches and abundant volunteers – had lower rates of innovation and lower average pay.”
While Township communities find strength in the quality of relative few relationships, Network communities find their strength in the quantity of outer-ring relationships. As the above research proves, the explosion of “flimsy relationships” in Network America can lead to higher rates of innovation and superior economic outcomes.
American communities existing under the Network model also have numerous disadvantages as compared to communities under the Township model. The three we’ll examine here are political isolation, societal polarization, and curbing creativity.
In April 2017 Heineken released a commercial called “Worlds Apart” in which three pairs of strangers with opposing political views ended up having beers together to discuss their differences.
If you haven’t seen the video, I’d recommend checking it out. After watching you can’t help but smile and think “this is the way America is supposed to work. People from a variety of backgrounds all living together and talking with one another to settle differences and compromise for the good of the country.”
Unfortunately these types of feel-good scenarios are much less likely in Network communities due to political isolation. As we saw in Where We Live, Americans are increasingly choosing to live in homogenous communities. Let’s look at a real world example called Ladera Ranch.
Before the developers of Ladera Ranch built the neighborhoods that would eventually house over 16,000 people, they surveyed the homebuyers to see to what extent they agreed to questions like “we need to treat the planet as a living system” and “I have been born again in Jesus Christ.”
After analyzing the results the developers built Ladera Ranch around the like-minded groups that emerged from the survey. For example, there is a “Covenant Hills” neighborhood for the faith-centered families with a Christian school nearby. In a separate neighborhood called “Terramor” you can find a Montessori school and the types of folks that believe we should treat the planet as a living system.
FiveThirtyEight found examples of this type of political isolation all over the country. In counties like Baldwin County, Alabama or San Mateo, California where greater than 80% of voters voted for Trump or Clinton respectively, “an entire generation of youth will grow up without much exposure to alternative political points of view.”
Most people would agree that being exposed to a variety of ideas on the political spectrum is better than being isolated in one way of thinking. But digging a bit deeper, what are the results of political isolation on American communities?
For all of the advantages Americans gain at the individual level from “Comfortable Living” mentioned above, there exist an equal amount of disadvantages at the community level. It’s comfortable to live around people that think and act like you do, but is it good for the community?
We can find some answers in the field of psychology. Since the 1960s, hundreds of psychological studies examining like-minded groups have confirmed the same phenomenon that has appropriately been named Group Polarization.
The general idea is that “like-minded groups, over time, grow more extreme in the direction of the majority view” (Big Sort, 67). You might be thinking this sounds like “mob mentality” or “groupthink” and that’s because they are forms of group polarization. As Bishop eloquently sums up in The Big Sort, “mixed company moderates; like-minded company polarizes. Heterogeneous communities restrain group excesses; homogeneous communities march toward the extremes.”
The fact that Network communities are more homogenous than past versions of Township communities means that American communities are increasingly falling victim to group polarization and “marching towards the extremes.” Not only will the kids living in Baldwin County, Alabama and San Mateo, California not interact with those on the other side of the political spectrum, but living next to like-minded folks will actually make them more extreme in their political tendencies.
Guess what kind of candidates these extreme communities elect to Congress? They elect candidates that will vote in a more extreme way – so extreme that America is seeing levels of political polarization it hasn’t seen since the Civil War.
Marching towards the extremes has also proven to have a negative impact on democratic participation: “nearly sixty years of social psychological research confirms that as political majorities grow within communities, minorities retreat from public life” (Big Sort, 78).
Does political polarization cause other problems in America? Marc Dunkelman certainly thinks so. In Vanishing Neighbor he makes the argument that the Big Sort has lead to politically homogenous communities and through group polarization these communities have become more extreme. In turn, these extreme communities have elected more extreme members of Congress, which then has lead to political gridlock and what many would consider a broken American political system.
But we digress – if you’re interested in learning more about the details of that argument, go read the book. The main takeaway from this section is that Network America is made of homogenous communities, which has lead to political isolation AND societal polarization.
Hopefully you can start to see how these negative effects of homogenous communities may also produce negative effects in Coliving communities. Since Coliving is a community-based living solution that relies on a strong, connected group of residents, group dynamics must be taken into account.
The last disadvantage of Network communities we’ll cover can be summed up fairly easily: homogenous communities curb creativity.
Hold on – we discussed earlier in this post how “Network America can lead to higher rates of innovation and superior economic outcomes.” Now we’re saying that Network America curbs creativity and therefore decreases innovation and leads to worse economic outcomes. Which is correct?
The short answer is both. One aspect of the network is an increase in the number of outer ring relationships or “flimsy relationships.” This aspect of the Network combined with the strength of weak ties theory works to strengthen a community’s ability to innovate.
Another aspect of Network America, however, is that communities are becoming increasingly homogenous. This aspect of the Network works in the opposite direction and actually works to weaken a community’s ability to innovate. How?
In one of her most famous publications The Economy of Cities (1969), author Jane Jacobs discovered that, “the sorts of interactions that incubate new ideas are suffused through the chance encounters of a well-functioning neighborhood.”
Decades later, University of Chicago sociologist Ronald Burt discovered a similar effect in the workplace: “there’s a direct connection between the diversity of an employee’s exposure to different viewpoints and her propensity to come up with useful new ideas.”
If you’re still not convinced of how people come up with new ideas, take it from Steve Jobs: “creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.”
If we examine these quotes with homogenous communities in mind, it’s easy to see how they can have a negative effect on creativity. Residents of Covenant Hills or Terramor Village aren’t likely to have “random discussions” with a diverse set of neighbors or any exposure at all to “different viewpoints.” Also, as we’ve discussed people in Network communities do not interact with middle ring neighbors as often, which severely limits creating new ideas through “chance encounters” in a “well-functioning neighborhood.”
Hopefully you can see by now that Network communities have many advantages and disadvantages. To recap:
So where does Coliving fit in to all of this? Should Coliving operators care about these trends?
If you visit any Coliving company’s website, you’ll immediately see why Coliving can improve the life of individuals: advantages like community, purpose-driven living, and relative affordability. What you won’t see and what isn’t talked about enough in the industry is how Coliving can improve the life of a community or the life of a city or the life of a country.
So that’s where we’ve been going in this Series. In Parts 1, 2, and 3 we set the scene. Now it’s time for Part 4 where we’ll tie it all together and finally make the Case for Coliving.
I believe that if executed correctly Coliving can be a means to not only improve individual outcomes, but also improve the economic and social outcomes of communities, neighborhoods, and cities. Check out Part 4 below to find out why.
Part 1: Where We Live
Part 2: How We Live