Social distancing? It’s anything but…

Small shifts in our urban networks will help us through the next wave of challenges

Dr Orit Gal, Senior Lecturer for Strategy & Complexity and political economist, explores why physical distance doesn’t mean the loss of our deep social ties.  

This article is part of our new series, Regent's Review: thoughts, research and academic discussion on the rapidly unfolding pandemic.


Summary

  • Any transformational era in history has a great city as its hub – but now, things are changing.
  • Our temporary physical distancing is bringing us socially closer together.
  • It's these seemingly small shifts inside our urban networks that will help us through the next wave of challenges coming our way. 

Social distancing? It’s anything but…

As we retreat temporarily into our individual homely shells, what remains of our urban selves? So much of our daily lives, our grinds and joys draw on the DNA of the cities and neighbourhoods we live in. We might complain about the overcrowded morning commute, the ever-shrinking sense of space, and the ever-rising prices for it, but what makes an urban dwelling a home extends way beyond its walls.  

A home is a network of people and places comprising a comforting sense of familiarity. It’s the streets we walk down every day giving no conscious attention to shapes, turns or roadworks. It’s the small independent shops, dry cleaners, and cafes we might not even visit that frequently. It’s the familiar faces of strangers we might recognise, but will never speak to.  

Yet as our streets empty out, the shops and cafes shut, and even the roadworks are dismantled, something else begins to happen  – those familiar strangers start to say hello. This might be a generic 'morning' or 'you alright?', but somehow those previous unspoken restrictions on personal interactions seem to wither away. 

As social organisms, we’ve always survived as effective networks. Whatever the era or habitat, we are programmed to seek out webs of connections to exchange bits of information, observe behaviours, and collaborate to create all the useful, and less useful, stuff around us. It is this intrinsic human force that we see recalibrating within our currently locked-down cities.  

When we lose the bustling signals of familiarity we intuitively reach out to generate new ones; we use digital platforms to organise local efforts for sharing information and distributing resources, especially for those in need. And we quickly adapt to drinks with friends on Zoom and virtual first dates. 

We tend to think of a city’s economy as the engine that gives it form and keeps it going, but the economy, like the city itself, is simply a manifestation of our human networks  – the density, efficiency and emotional rewards transmitted via our collaborative interactions. The good news is that these can be shocked but not destroyed. As Geoffery West famously explained, unlike individual organisms or companies, cities never die! 

While seemingly disorganised, cities are giant problem-solving algorithms, reflexively negotiating our collective needs and efforts towards an endless stream of experimentations, entrepreneurship, and collective action. Think about any transformational era in history and you’ll find a great city as its hub, turning new ways of thinking into technological, political and social solutions for the great problems of its time. 

But it’s never the specific ideas, people, or institutions involved that enable such breakthroughs. It is the fluidity with which people interact. Crucially though, it is these network dynamics that are energised in times of crisis. 

There are many types of social dynamics that make up a society. When they work together, they increase our social interactions while creating new opportunities for collaboration and problem-solving. 

Firstly, there are random collisions: the opportunity for people from different social circles, professions, and backgrounds to communicate. These are the familiar strangers we might finally find ourselves chatting. 

Then there are weak ties: the unique value that's added by interactions across network clusters. While most of our interactions tend to focus on a small group of friends and family, we suddenly find ourselves Zooming with distant cousins and ex-colleagues. The more these weak link communications occur, the more information and knowledge that enter our immediate networks. 

Lastly are increased degrees of freedom – the legitimacy individuals feel in voicing and trying out new modes of behaviour and collaboration as we now see coming out of the scientific and business communities.   

Our temporary physical distancing is bringing us socially closer together. It is these seemingly small shifts inside our urban networks that will help us through the next wave of challenges coming our way. Being aware of them means we can nurture and use them for the benefit of us all. 

Published: