Communities (In a Highly Connected World)
Discussions on sustainability and resilience (and on the social innovation required to achieve them) frequently refer to the term “community”. Even though everybody knows that the communities of today (i.e. communities in a highly connected world) are quite different from those of the past, there are not so many shared ideas of what we really mean when we use this term.
The following notes outline some characteristics of contemporary communities utilizing a social network analysis approach. They present the author’s personal point of view, based on the discussions and the experiences had until now in the framework of the Culture of Resilience Project.
As for every social form, communities can be seen as networks with the involved people as “nodes” and their interactions as “ties”. In this case, a description of the morphology of these nodes and ties may help us better understand the unprecedented nature of communities in today's highly connected world. In other words, we must make a clear distinction between contemporary communities and both pre-modern traditional communities and the twentieth century, ideology-based, intentional communities.
Multiple, variable, non-exclusive social ties
(The possibility to choose)
Contemporary communities are meshes of social ties that individuals can activate in different ways, choosing where, how, when and for how long to allocate their personal resources (in terms of time, attention, skills, relational availability). This description indicates two main characteristics. Firstly, unlike the pre-modern traditional communities, which were not chosen by their own members, the contemporary ones exist by choice. Secondly, unlike the twentieth century intentional communities, which were based on strong ideologies calling for exclusive affiliation and promising a strong identity, the contemporary ones are multiple, non-exclusive and demand no special level of commitment. In other words, those who participate in this kind of community are not looking for a ready-made solution or identity. On the contrary, they are looking to build their own solution and identity by making their own personal choices among different proposed options.
Social networks / places
(Fluid, open, intentional relationships)
Social networks can be more or less embedded in the place where their members live and act. Presently, the main trend is (still) towards reduced embedment (creating networks of increasingly displaced individuals). At the same time, several signals are pointing in the opposite direction. The search for improved resilience in socio-technical systems on one side, and in the quality of human interactions on the other, highlight the importance of positive relationships between people, their communities and the places where they live. Of course, in a highly connected world these relationships are quite different from the ones of the past: they are becoming fluid (they change in time) and open (they cannot be precisely confined in one place).
Nevertheless, because people still live and act in the physical world, these relationships cannot be neglected. Or better, they must be improved and nurtured.
Here on, the term community will be used in the sense of community-in-place, meaning the whole mesh of social networks that interweave within a place, characterizing and in turn being characterized by it.
Conversations, services, collaborations
(A space of possibilities)
Contemporary communities are not to be seen as structured organizations, but as spaces of possibilities: networks of people and places offering opportunities for expressing ideas, solving problems, opening directions towards new perspectives. It follows that, from the point of view of potential members, contemporary communities are qualified by the density and variety of meaningful interactions they offer. In operative terms, these meaningful interactions take different forms, for instance: conversations (interactions for the sake of exchanging ideas), services (result-oriented interactions in which someone does something for someone else) and collaborations (result-oriented interactions in which different actors participate in the definition of a common goal and collaborate to achieve it).
Each of them can be evaluated, from the community members’ point of view, in terms of collaborative attitude and relational intensity, meaning the request for time, attention, skills and long-term commitment, for the first (the collaborative attitude), and trust, empathy and friendliness, for the second (the relational intensity).
Encounters and social commons
(A virtuous circle)
Contemporary community cellular units are person-to-person interactions: they are the human encounters in which two or more people freely decide to do something together. Whatever the shared results may be, in the process of their realization, these encounters generate a very important side-product: they produce relational values between the actors involved (such as: trust, empathy and friendliness). These values, sedimenting in time inside the community, generate social commons (cumulated trust and ability to collaborate, take decisions and solve problems). Therefore, a virtuous circle appears: person-to-person encounters generate relational values that, in turn, produce social commons. This creates a favorable environment for new person-to-person encounters, which enable an amplified circle to start again.
(A multiple and open-ended design process)
Given that a community is a space of possibilities (and not an organization), it cannot be designed and realized as a single entity. On the contrary, it must be built piece-by-piece, proposing motivations for encounters and creating conditions to make them possible and permit them to evolve towards new social forms. It follows that, for contemporary communities, the expression “community building” must be taken literally: communities are to be built starting from their molecular elements. That is, from the different kinds of encounters between people and between people and places that are, by all means, their building blocks. Therefore, community building implies working at two levels: offering encounter possibilities oriented towards different goals and accessible with different kinds of commitment, and creating enabling structures to produce an environment where these encounters may exist, last in time and be easily replicated.
Resilient community building
(Connecting and valorizing diversities)
Building a resilient community means increasing diversity, redundancy and ability to learn from experience. This can be done supporting collaboration between different people, valorizing these diversities and creating conditions for an inclusive social cohesion. This means:
- proposing themes, programs and projects of interest to socially and culturally different people.
- proposing activities that can be performed with different levels of commitment, meaning with different collaborative attitudes and relational intensity.
- realizing systems enabling the existence and development of a multiplicity of non-planned, auto-produced activities.
- realizing artifacts capable of aggregating groups of people and positively influence their behaviours.
- realizing digital and physical spaces where non-planned encounters could easily happen, creating more friendly, open and fertile environments.