The ur­ban vil­lage

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

“I want to be a part of it – New York, New York,” Frank Si­na­tra sang of the city that has at­tracted so many of the world’s most am­bi­tious peo­ple, from artists and per­form­ers to busi­ness­peo­ple and bankers. In a sense, this is not a dif­fi­cult phe­nom­e­non to ex­plain; me­trop­o­lises like New York City, with their mul­ti­cul­tural pop­u­la­tions, multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions, and mul­ti­tude of tal­ented in­di­vid­u­als, are rife with op­por­tu­ni­ties. But the im­pact of large ci­ties runs deeper than eco­nomic or even cul­tural power; ci­ties can fun­da­men­tally change peo­ple’s lives – and even the peo­ple them­selves.

In 2010, Ge­of­frey West, to­gether with a team of re­searchers, dis­cov­ered that sev­eral so­cioe­co­nomic mea­sures – both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive – in­crease with the size of the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion. In other words, the larger the city, the higher the av­er­age wage, pro­duc­tiv­ity level, num­ber of patents per per­son, crime rate, preva­lence of anx­i­ety, and in­ci­dence of HIV.

In fact, when a city dou­bles in size, ev­ery mea­sure of eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity in­creases by about 15% per capita. That is why peo­ple move to the big city; in­deed, it is why ci­ties thrive.

This law re­mains con­stant across city sizes. And it is not unique. A grow­ing body of ev­i­dence sug­gests that sim­i­lar func­tions gov­ern even more as­pects of ur­ban life than the re­search by West’s team in­di­cated.

How can ci­ties as os­ten­si­bly dif­fer­ent as New York, with its tow­er­ing pro­file, and Paris, char­ac­terised by wide boule­vards, func­tion so sim­i­larly? If, as Shake­speare sug­gested, a city is noth­ing but its peo­ple, the an­swer may lie in the char­ac­ter­is­tic pat­terns of con­nec­tion, in­ter­ac­tion, and ex­change among res­i­dents.

HIV – in­deed, any sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted dis­ease – pro­vides a par­tic­u­larly vivid ex­am­ple of the way that so­cial net­works shape ur­ban life, as it spreads through link­ages of sex­ual part­ners. Ideas – and the in­no­va­tions that re­sult from them – spread in a sim­i­lar man­ner.

Just a few years ago, a broad in­ves­ti­ga­tion of th­ese com­plex so­cial net­works would have been vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble. After all, the avail­able tools – iso­lated lab­o­ra­tory ex­per­i­ments and writ­ten ques­tion­naires – were both im­pre­cise and dif­fi­cult to ap­ply on a large scale. The In­ter­net has changed that. By en­mesh­ing bil­lions of peo­ple in seam­less con­nec­tiv­ity, on­line plat­forms have trans­formed the scope of so­cial net­works and pro­vided new tools for re­searchers to in­ves­ti­gate hu­man in­ter­ac­tion. In fact, an en­tirely new field of study is emerg­ing at the in­ter­sec­tion of data an­a­lyt­ics and so­ci­ol­ogy: com­pu­ta­tional so­cial sci­ence. Us­ing data col­lected on­line or through telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions net­works – the wire­less providers Orange and Eric­s­son, for ex­am­ple, have re­cently made some data avail­able to re­searchers – it is now pos­si­ble to ad­dress, in a sci­en­tific way, fun­da­men­tal ques­tions about hu­man so­cia­bil­ity.

A re­cent pa­per (of which one of us, Carlo Ratti, is a coau­thor) uses anonymised data from telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions net­works across Europe to ex­plore how hu­man net­works change with city size. The re­sults are strik­ing: in large ci­ties, peo­ple not only walk faster (a ten­dency recorded since the 1960s), but they also make – and change – friends faster.

This phe­nom­e­non is likely rooted in the fact that, in ac­cor­dance with West’s find­ings, the to­tal num­ber of hu­man con­nec­tions in­creases with city size. London’s 8 mil­lion in­hab­i­tants reg­u­larly con­nect with almost twice the num­ber of peo­ple as Cam­bridge’s 100,000 res­i­dents. This in­creas­ing ex­po­sure to peo­ple – and hence to ideas, ac­tiv­i­ties, and even dis­eases – could ex­plain so­cioe­co­nomic out­comes.

But another ten­dency is also con­sis­tent across ci­ties of all sizes: peo­ple tend to build “vil­lages” around them­selves. This be­hav­iour is quan­ti­fied as the net­works’ “clus­ter­ing co­ef­fi­cient” – that is, the prob­a­bil­ity that a per­son’s friends will also be friends with one another – and re­mains ex­traor­di­nar­ily sta­ble across met­ro­pol­i­tan ar­eas. Sim­ply put, hu­mans ev­ery­where are nat­u­rally in­clined to live within tightknit com­mu­ni­ties.

Of course, this idea has been sug­gested be­fore. The ur­ban­ist Jane Ja­cobs, for ex­am­ple, de­scribed the rich in­ter­ac­tions oc­cur­ring in New York City neigh­bour­hoods – what she called an “in­tri­cate bal­let, in which the in­di­vid­ual dancers and en­sem­bles all have dis­tinc­tive parts which mirac­u­lously re­in­force each other.” What com­pu­ta­tional so­cial sci­ence of­fers is the prospect of quan­ti­fy­ing such ob­ser­va­tions and gain­ing in­sights that could shape the de­sign of ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments in the fu­ture.

The ques­tion is whether th­ese in­sights could also un­lock the power of hu­man in­ter­ac­tions in small towns, en­abling them to ac­cess some of the so­cial and eco­nomic ad­van­tages of a large city. In this sense, it is crit­i­cal to recog­nise the fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence be­tween “ur­ban vil­lages” and their ru­ral coun­ter­parts. In the lat­ter, so­cial net­works are largely pre­de­ter­mined by fam­ily, prox­im­ity, or his­tory. City dwellers, by con­trast, can ex­plore a wide va­ri­ety of op­tions to cre­ate cus­tom-made vil­lages ac­cord­ing to their so­cial, in­tel­lec­tual, or cre­ative affini­ties.

Per­haps that is why Si­na­tra left his home­town of Hobo­ken, New Jersey. Only in a city like New York could he find the Rat Pack.

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