A trade journal of a still-emerging field, written by Adam Tinworth.

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I’ve been a Fellow of the RSA for about six years now, invited to join the fellowship because of my “expertise in digital media” – something they were apparently short of at the time. I’ve enjoyed being a fellow, often use the RSA House as a meeting space or a London office, and attend events there. But the annual Fellowship card has always annoyed me – it’s a fragile coated paper thing that barely survives a year of use:

the old RSA Fellowship Card

That’s all gone, replaced with a nicely designed plastic one:

The RSA provides a powerful global platform for independent debate and research, creating a foundation to encourage innovative thinking, which often grows into pioneering action. We wanted to take this concept to bring to life the Fellowship network through illustration.

And this is the result:

Final card image

It’s rather nice – and feels a heck of a lot less fragile in my wallet.

I suspect it also has RFID or similar in it, because apparently we can use it to “touch in” to the RSA House now. I’m look forward to trying that out soon…

The link between connectivity of various sorts and social change is something that’s almost bound to interest me, given that I’ve spent over a decade of my life thinking about how the internet changes the way we communicate with each other. And so I took myself off to the RSA House in London to hear Parag Kahnna speak on the idea that connectivity is destiny – our layers of connection with one another are more important to the future than traditional political boundaries. Here’s what I took away from the talk:

Charlotte Alldritt introduces Parag Khanna at the RSA

The trigger for Parag’s talk is – perhaps inevitably – a new book. Connectography is a “new approach to cartography” – maps as art, sure, but also mapping global connectivity.


Maps, the world’s oldest infographics are misleading – they are political, and depict how we divide ourselves legally, not how e connect as people. We’re familiar with maps of geography, and political maps. What we don’t have is maps of functional geography.

There are, broadly, three main categories of connectivity:

  • Transport
  • Energy
  • Communications

In human body terms, these are equivalent to the:

  • Skeleton
  • Vascular system
  • Nervous system

The book is, by its nature, static, so there’s an online data set you can explore. It’s a map of how we are reshaping the world.

Our ratios of infrastructure spending to military spending is growing rapidly in infrastructure’s favour – especially in Asia. The city is our most fundamental and long-standing human unit, and then connectivity is next. Our mega-inforstructures will outlive many countries, especially in Africa and the Middle East. We know how long countries last – and railroads and other forms of connectivity often outlive them.

This means we’re moving towards a supply chain world. (more…)

Zachary Neal

Liveblogged notes of Zachary Neal‘s talk on community integration and cohesion at the RSA.

In this talk he’s going to focus on micro networks. Are diverse communities possible? Tha answer’s grim: no. But there is a bright side…

He’s been thinking about community policy in the US; it’s fragmented and piecemeal. It’s more clearly articulated in the UK. In 2001 the Home Office came out with a report on community cohesion, which lead to the Commission on Integration & Cohesion. In 2010, the Cabinet Office made it clear it was important as part of the Big Society rubric. 

This is the right direction – but there’s a hidden problem, a policy paradox. It’s not clear how integration and cohesion interlock. Are more integrated communities more cohesive? Or are more integrated communities less cohesive?


In segregated communities, similar people live near one another.  In integrated communities, different sorts of people are more evenly mixed through the neighbourhood. 

Social networks

In fragmented communities, people have disconnected social networks. In cohesive communities, people have dense special networks. 

Making Friends

How do people develop social networks; how do they come together?

Homophily – birds of a feather flock together. This is a nearly universal characteristic – it applies to animals, cities and protein interactions. It can be stinger or weaker. But it’s not about aversion. It’s more about opportunities to meet.

Proximity – near things are more related than far things. Works for all sorts of things, but people especially. 

They create hypothetical communities, and think about what the social networks might look like, assuming moderate homophile and proximity. Moderately segregated communities are moderately cohesive. Highly segregated communities are more cohesive. They see this time after time. And on the other end of the spectrum, highly integrated communities are much less cohesive. 

Conclusion: homophily and proximity means that making communities more integrated makes them less cohesive.

The Policy Problem

Are we stuck with this? Or can we shift to a world of integrated, cohesive communities? At any strength, homophily and proximity push against this. So, can we get rid of homophily? Can you imagine a world where you only became friends with people unlike you? Unlikely.

The other possibility is getting rid of proximity – making people more likely to become friends with people a long way away. Again, seems unlikely.

To create a integrated, cohesive world people need to avoid their neighbours, or avoid “birds of a feather”. But is that a world we want to live in? It seems to him that it’s not a world he wants to live in, or is it clear it’s even possible.

Is our policy initiative aiming for an unobtainable goal? Should we be striving for a balance instead? Could some communities benefit from more integration, some from more cohesion? 


Zachar Neal Q&A

Is there a Goldilocks point where you have sufficient cohesion, without becoming a monoculture?

It’s hard to identify that. Maximising cohesion is not necessarily our goal. Cohesivie communities tend to be very stagnant. Ideas stay within them, they don’t innovate. More fragmented networks mean you receive lots of different information, opening the way to innovation. 

How possible is it to change the tradeoff through skilled network interventions?

The easiest work – under the name the contact hypothesis – worked poorly. The way way to break down boundaries is through friends of friends, not forcing unlike people to live next to each other. It’s difficult to create an intervention to create this friends of friends, though. We understand what’s need, but not how to do it.

Is a better understanding of social networks relevant to policy?

For centuries governments have been collecting census data and using it to set policy. The problem is that census data treats each individual separately – we need to look at how people relate to one another. That move sue beyond the simplistic individual analysis. Social networks are providing us with those tools. Pretty much everything we do is driven by the people we know. 

In the states, we see naturally occurring retirement communities. They’re not moving, just finding each other and supporting each other.

The internet and faster transport are eroding the proximity effect. Now it’s possible to carry on long-distance friendships without meeting, or to form retirement community snot based on spacial proximity. 

We’re seeing two types of relationships emerge online. There are those relationships that become offline relationships, and then we’re seeing the low level “Facebook” relationship, formed with just a click. Use of the internet to form real world relationships is one way of reversing these trends.

Who funds you?

This is unfunded work. 

Is computer analysis of networks is incredibly naive – possibly even wrong? 

This is an early version of a much larger model that will include many other characteristics. This models will never capture what’s going on in people’s heads. It’s a purely structural models – that gives us some idea of the boundaries within which policy can be set. There’s nothing random in networks – just things that are hard to predict and things are very hard to predict. 

Is the term “proximity” a problem? Facilities can bring people together, but not at the same scale you’re talking about. Is the very idea of neighbourhood a problem in this?

In this model proximity just means the things immediately around your house. Your point is that proximity can mean proximity to facilities. Public schools can allow parents to form relationship and networks around that school. Charter schools create more fragmented networks. The way we design these public facities can effect the social networks in the area. 

What about Universities? Or social media?

Universities are one of those nuclei that networks form around. But there’s still an element of homophily, around university education, around subject matter. Online social networks don’t seem to be translating into offline relationships. They could be used to reduce the effect of proximity, though, through maintaining relationships established face to face over greater distance. 

My thoughts

I really want to read his book. The model he’s presenting sounds like a good, but simplistic start on understanding the variables underlying community – that can’t quite stand up the claims being made, because there are more factors in play that the model accounts for. His approach to the effects of online networking on relationships seemed simplistic and on the borderline of wrong – but it feels like he’s doing good work challenging some of the assumptions around community policy. 

One of the advantages of often using the RSA House as my London office is that there are some really excellent lunchtime events in my workplace. Today, Avner de-Shalit, professor of democracy and human rights at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was talking about the The Spirit of Cities: Why the Identity of a City Matters in a Global Age, a book he co-authored with Daniel Bell on the identity of cities in a global age.

We live in an global era – it is flat in the sense that it is easy to move from one place to another, he suggested. But it’s also flat in he sense that it’s not profound. There’s less debate about ideology than there used to be. However different states try to be from one another, the demands of the global market, the IMF, international law, etc, actually drive them into a stae of relative similarity. What does it mean to be French, German or Italian? It matters less and less, he suggested, but people want to feel particularity. Cities shape our lives because they promote radically different lives.

The book argues empirically that the urban identity is supplanting the national one, and that it’s a positive thing. The authors studied nine cities, and compared them with other cities in the same countries.

He floated some nice ideas:

  • The stroller as the botanist of the street.
  • Why no children in the public specs of New York? You cannot walk in the streets if you are a child. At child height all you can see is legs moving.
  • Civicism – a sense of pride, love and desire to contribute to a city. Use this local patriotism to start to restrict the power of the state. Cities cannot fight each other – just complain.

And he had some definitions of the spirits of cities for us. Paris is the non-pasteurised city, leaving pasteurised to the bourgeois. Berlin is intolerance and acceptance – but mixed with intolerance. He explained this one in some detail. All modern buildings in the city are built with glass and are transparent; a stark contradiction of the Nazi era. However, there have been peaks and troughs of tolerance in Berlin. Tolerance has meant indifference rather than inclusion. On a different path now? We believe so. Berliners are no longer trying to be perfect.

The city as metaphor for corruption and crime is an outdated idea, he suggested. The idea of a city needs to be meaningful to local communities.

Some more ideas from the Q&A, moderated by Dr Fran Tonkiss, Reader in Sociology, and Director of the Cities Programme, LSE:

  • If the idea of a city is engineered top down as a marketing exercise, it needs to be done in a way which allows people to be involved in the process.
  • Cities have the right size – but not the right budget, so there are some problems with which they can’t cope.
  • When we go to a city for the first time, we walk and walk and walk until we collapse – because we want to get a sense of the city.
  • London has different, competing stories. London was more like a federation until the arrival of the mayor. After the war, London decided to be a global city – the sane alternative to New York. A cosmopolitan city. Other cities like London: Tokyo. Maybe there’s room for a book about neighbourhoods.
  • Transport – some cities are good to walk, some are lousy to walk. Lots of books about the workable city.
  • Climate effect on cities? Detroit was doomed by the cold. Cities that flourish in America are often determined by climate. The warmer the better.

I suppose, as a journalist and writer, the idea of cities having, in effect, a narrative of self appeals to me deeply. But the underlying principle, that of the city replacing the nation state as a point of identification, is compelling. I suppose I’d better read the book now…

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The RSAAt the RSA again for the Rise and Fall of Information Empires event.  Today’s speaker is Tim Wu, riffing on the themes from his bookTom Chatfield is in the chair.

Liveblogging follows (typos and errors likely):

Every North American author’s dream is coming to talk in England… (really?)

Clarence Hickman worked for AT&T in the 1930s. Worked at the Bell Labs. Had a secret machine that was 7 feet tall and it would revolutionise the world. If you dialled his number and he wasn’t there, you could leave a message. He invented the answer machine – but the significance was the magnetic recording device that would lead to hard drives and much of modern computing storage. We only know this because historians discovered this in the 1990s. The invention was suppressed for 60 years. Why? In the 1930s, AT&T decided that this was a grave threat to the telephone. But also, 2/3 of American phone calls were obscene (their research suggested), and if they were recorded…

This monopoly status that AT&T had: is it a feature of that age, or is it something we have to worry about now? My book suggests that it’s part of a pattern of invention, a struggle to establish, and then a flourishing, We are in one of those with the internet. The end of the story is consolidation, and then control by a monopolist, or a close cartel of companies. That has been the fate of most information revolutions. Will this happen to the internet, or is it inherently different?

Why might it be different?

There’s a sense that there’s something radical in the way it’s been engineered – it’s designed to resist control, as the protests in the middle east are showing now. The economy is different. There’s no way a ,monopoly could last, runs the thinking in Silicon Valley – they always get taken down.

Why might it not?

1. Economic laws – why has Facebook been so successful? Everyone goes there because everyone is there. The network effect means that the more people that are there the more useful it is. This is what happened in the telephone market.

2. Human nature -people get excited (and utopian) by the possibilities of new technology. It’s a problem solved, they think. It can end war, improve relations.  Then annoyance rises, so they need more filters. They become more interested in higher quality products, which are more reliable and secure. The film industry went this way. Some companies are beginning to emerge that cater to that – Google, but, more obviously, Steve Jobs and Apple. It’s beautiful and reliable and gets rid of the junk. In that, you can see an echo of the monopolists through time. Is that the factor destined to bring back monopoly?

Q. Why should people want open systems?

A. Sometimes the things people want aren’t good for us. We need room for dissenting and unpopular voices and views. There’s a dynamic nature to monopolies. They tend to start off good – at the beginning they’re fantastic, which is why they become a monopoly. (Everybody in the room uses Google). The problem isn’t the short term, it’s the entrenchment over 70 years. They become stagnant. Dictators are like this, too.

Q. What should we be looking our for with Apple and Google? When does the transition to damage happen?

A. These are the two companies most likely to seize the one ring to rule them all. There’s a real chance that they’ll become a global entrenched power, which we’ve never seen before. (Facebook is another one to watch). Watch to see if they put their resources into innovation or defence. Do they put money into new products, or into attacking their competitors? While there’s still a healthy start-up culture, there’s a chance of monopolies falling.

Q, Aren’t monpolies the birth partners of capitlism?

A. Yes, and they will recur. We will always have the. So, as a society, we have to address the issue of what we do with concentrating private power. Dictatorships and monarchies have their problems as well as advantages, which is why checks and balances like parliaments arise – and there are brutal solutions like breakups.

Q. It seems to be historically inevitable that monopolies decline as new technologies emerge. Should we be more concerned about the creation of new monopolies, or should we concentrate on destroying them when they’ve emerged?

A. Dealing with them in advance is very difficult – you have to look at companies that look they might be successful and try and stop them…  A little communist and out of fashion. Encourage good behaviour, let they know that they’re being watched, and make them aware that there are remedies in the end.

Q. The iPlayer seem to know what I should want, but I take the opposite view. I’m worried about the internet making us compliant and submissive citizens.

A. Most consumers seek out safe, comfortable experiences. Safe, reliable systems become stagnant – but things that keep things healthy are unpopular; forest fires, political dissenters.

Q. Canada situation: re:ownership of content

A. The worst things I saw was when there’s too much integration between those who move content than those who produce it. The original BBC is an example – an integrated system, but someone trustworthy to run it. The current model is all the power and no responsibility. Newspapers always try to throw elections – but there’s an extra power if you’re the only communiction medium in teh country. There’s a real danger.

Q. There was nothing inevitable about the success of the internet. We need to pay attention to institutions that make the arguments and allow debate.

A. Yes, there were contending protocols to the internet – but they were all competing against an open system.

Q. (something about criminals and cyberwars)

A. Yes, there is the threat of cyber war, and that’s why there’s a move towards a more closed system. But it is easy to go too far. There’s criminal activity on the streets. There’s tension between the needs of law enforcement and human freedom.

Q. We’re talking about monopolies like they’re very bad things? Is there any way a monopoly can be managed like it can last?

A. When I say “monopoly” I don’t mean it’s a bad thing: most of them have this golden phase. In the 1920s AT&T said “we are going to build the best network in human history” – and they did. And Google is now saying “we won’t do evil, trust us”. It’s very similar to politics – look at Oliver Cromwell. They can go sour over time. Google are self-concious of this problem. They try to engineer ways to prevent themselves becoming evil. They try to void stagnation and defensiveness. I spent some time inside Google as a fellow, and it’s a very real struggle.

Q. Regularlory capture – successful companies start spending lots of money on political lobbying

A. If you’re a large company, the best way to ensure survival is to have government make your competitors’ business illegal. It’s much simpler than trying to beat them. There’s a tendency for a powerful company to seek the assistance of government. But (in the US) that’s also protected free speech.

Q. This seems to be a battle between freedom and control.

A. Great observation. What happens if you invent something that’s designed to be free? The inventors of the internet were trying to solve actual problems. Some of the inventors of the computers were involved in LSD research… We’re seeing some of this with open source software, trying to use the law to build freedom into software.

Q. Have you contemplated similarities between information systems and road/haulage systems? They have amazing freedom. Can we learn anything?

A. It’s incredibly relevant, and possibly a model. It has a much longer history. The electric network is also similar, You can buy any product and plug it into the electric network. It’s very innovation-sustaining. There’s a law of common carriage. An early realisation in English law that owners of bridges, ports, etc have tremendous power. That should influence how we think about communication networks.

And we’re done.

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HH: Agree. It would be a dystopia. But fellowship and camaraderie are important – just not for running the country. A sense of boundaries in a group is not inherently a bad thing.
MT: Cites Straw Dogs and Royston Vasey – the closed villages.
CA: Those are disappearing. Those pubs are being replaced by middle class expensive venues. Some groups who run things are very effective, like the 250 community shops. Once started, they very rarely stop. 
HH: the social element keeps them together once the idealism fades.
CA: Objecting to something really does bring people together. 
HH: Communities of interest tend to be less homogeneous. Common interest can blind you to other factors of difference. Leaders are hugely important. They need to be thick-skinned and directive, but not a dictator. All groups that last have someone in this role.
CA: Some people are prepared to invest incredible amounts of time in their community. Natural leaders can take over villages.


Q1: Hasn’t the outsider always been incredibly successful? They don’t want to integrate. How should they be able to live in your ideal?

CA: it is now possible to be in neighbourhood as an outsider. It wasn’t for most of history – you were the witch. But people who have down well have less of a sense of local responsibility that they did in the squireachical age. Public space is hugely important because it is where people meet. 

Q2: choice versus compulsion: choosing who you associate with, rather than having that chosen by location

(no discussion of this)

Q3: do we lose something by abandoning geographic community with it’s accountability and responsibility.

CA: That local community just doesn’t exist. We don’t have the chance to develop that. 
MT: But is there something more important about local?
CA: it is qualitatively different, and I wouldn’t want to see it abandoned. But we can’t engineer it from outside. 

Q4: live in a village, but spend my weeks in London. The larger a human community gets, everything scales, good and bad, culture and crime.

CA: the Internet gives us both.

Q5: that nomadic group of 150 is just a moving village. 

MT: Lambeth has 50% turnover – how do you build community amongst that?

Q6: Psychological roots of groups?

HH: 12 is very important. Effective groups. Evolution: those who hung out in groups survived, those who struck out on their own didn’t. A book group that went from 12 to 20 stopped working. Scale is important.

CA: anti-nomad, spent a lot of time travelling around a regret it. The Internet allows us to find communities of interest that re non-locks, but people are happier when decisions are taken locally. 

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