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The wealth next door: the easy way to build social capital

Photo from our Winter Welcome Gathering

If asked, could you name your neighbors? 

A "yes" means you are probably healthier and happier and more prosperous. And a "no" have lots of potential! 

My answer for years:  sorta kinda.  Social and political scientists suggest the U.S. has, since the 1960s, lost a sense of community like Greenland is losing ice. We might refer to this as a loss of social capital

The Oxford Dictionary defines social capital   as "the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively." 

It's a wonky word for something we all would agree makes life worth living. And for some of us--at the edge of our health or sanity--it makes life possible. 

We are a busy, exhausted family with two bread-winners. We don't have a good house for hosting and and aren't particularly welcoming or "neighborly."  But we decided to do something about our disconnect from the people next door and the holidays seemed the right time.

Okay, hosting our neighbors was really my 14 year old daughter's idea. Honestly, I would have dragged my feet and declared myself a "good enough person" without such a show of generosity. Despite the most difficult year of my daughter's life, I was frankly amazed she could still think of such magnanimous things. We had to deliver. 

So we had our neighbors over for a holiday gathering on Saturday (yesterday). We fed them breakfast of pancakes, eggs, sausage and my famous (in my mind) cinnamon rolls. Over coffee we brought 6 houses together plus some of my son's friends from college.

Just the houses around us one can see a slice of humanity. We combine racial/ethnic backgrounds from Africa, Russia, and Europe. We braid together different socioeconomic levels. And we all have to shovel snow in the winter and design our lives around PSU football weekends.

The Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam describes two forms of social capital--which we can define as relationships of trust and reciprocity--in his book Bowling Alone: bonding social capital and bridging social capital. Bonding strengthens connections within a group and bridging connections between groups. 

Similarly, MIT's Sandy Pendtland's work on "social physics" has revealed with big data the same phenomenon .  Pendtland and his colleagues have equipped people with sensors of various kinds (in businesses, communities, countries) and they can track pathways and frequencies, emotions, blood pressure and other colors and textures of interactions. 

He has noticed two predictors of a number of measures of prosperity, health, productivity, and equity:  the level of engagement and the level of exploration. Engagement measures the number and frequency of interactions within a group (e.g. department, community, neighborhood) and exploration the interactions outside of a group which introduces new ideas.

A simple example:

  • Community A: high engagement but low exploration; will survive but struggle without the influx of new ideas, susceptible to "echo chamber"

  • Community B: high engagement and high exploration; will thrive with internal cohesion and interjection of novel perspectives 

The following images from Pendtland illustrate this simple but powerful distinction between engagement and exploration. 

Image of a cell phone users conversations showing frequent calls with a core group (engagement) and calls with others outside this core group (exploration). This is a social pattern repeated across many boundaries and types of settings, even species. 

Today I went on a walk through the neighborhood with my daughter. It felt different after the Winter Welcome Gathering at our house. The homes weren't inhabited by strangers but stories. The place felt less like "my" neighborhood and more like "our" neighborhood.

From Putnam and Pendtland's work, the headlines for me are:

  • Keep together and strengthen your family/team/department

  • Build ever-widening connections to ensure fresh ideas and open minds and hearts

Imagine neighborhoods where streets are connected (engagement) but also connected to one another (exploration).  

Imagine business units with great teams that habitually intersect with teams in other units and geographies and other industries, even NGO's and scientists and community leaders, exploring new, even contrarian ideas

Imagine university campuses where departments or colleges cohere strongly but also explore ideas within each other's disciplines and areas of work. Not just by luck, like if our kids are on the same sports team, but by design.

Can social media help?  

Pendtland's research is not definitive, but so far in-person interactions are much stronger predictor of health and prosperity than electronic ones. Technology can enhance but not replace personal connections, his research suggests.

We are talking about quarterly gatherings with neighbors. Not a new idea. Many people do this kind of thing all the time. And many communities around the world, this idea would seem odd. Knowing your neighbors?  That's a given in many parts of the world.

But here, in my country and community, diversity rises, income inequality widens and many hunker down in homogeneous groups. We make up stories about one another, including our neighbors. Where there could be social capital, there are social liabilities.

So knowing our neighbors won't save the world. But I can't imagine a good world without it. 

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