Illuminating the Social Infrastructure

“We shape the world by the questions we ask” - John Wheeler

Recently I participated in The City Resilient, an event organized by PopTech and the Rockefeller Foundation to bring together individuals with diverse backgrounds and experience that share a common interest in advancing the resilience of our communities. Day one of the event consisted of presentations from leading innovators and scholars working on advancing and understanding various aspects of resilience, from the personal to the ecological scale. Day two engaged a smaller group of attendees in a design exercise to generate new concepts that might serve as meaningful responses to the challenges we heard the day prior.

While listening to the diverse set of ideas introduced during the first day, it was hard not to feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the problem. As Andrew Zolli highlighted in his opening presentation, our quest for peak efficiency has led us to construct complex systems that ever more frequently exhibit fragility when shocked. No longer can we ignore the consequences of these optimizations.

For some technologists, the answer to these challenges is additional technological complexity. Such complexity naturally creates the opportunities for future surprise as these systems defy our understanding. We are horrible at fully grasping the consequences a priori of what we set out to create, especially when those creations involve a myriad of interdependencies. We must be more humble in what knowledge we presume to have about the world.

Naturally we will continue our search for technological solutions. By no means am I suggesting that we shouldn’t explore the possibilities. Yet I do believe we should embrace the idea that surprise is the norm going forward. The uncertainty and unpredictability that we’ve constructed in our world implies that we must be prepared to adapt when the surprises come. Therefore we must look inward at ourselves to assess whether we are ready.

The role of the underlying social structure in our ability to adapt was a common theme at the conference. It now seems accepted that communities which are more engaged and trusting of one another respond better in times of sudden catastrophe. The question lingering in my mind during the morning of the event was one of measurement. How can we assess the state of a given community? If we take actions to bolster the cohesiveness of the community, how can we assess whether we’ve made any improvements?

As if on cue, Robert Sampson took the stage to address a number of issues on my mind. Sampson is a sociologist at Harvard who has focused on developing a “science of the city” which he refers to as Ecometrics. I had come across his work some time ago when searching for prior art addressing these questions. His talk made it clear that he’s executed a number of measurement strategies within communities to assess the underlying social infrastructure and related those findings to outcomes during periods of stress. He has a recent book out that examines the role of community in Chicago neighborhoods based on findings from a decade of research.

No doubt I will be focusing on Sampson’s work in more detail in the future. His presentation gave the most compelling approach to making the abstract concepts of resilience far more concrete and actionable. By defining a discipline for measurement, we can begin to shine light on the invisible social infrastructure that permeates our communities and forms the foundation of our response to future events. Without that illumination, how can we devise impactful mechanisms for nurturing those connections?