Mobile Tech for Social Capital in American Cities

This is the third and final installment in a series of blog posts on technology and social capital in America. Read parts one and two.

Last week, I went in search of a few guidelines for using new network technologies-- web-based and mobile-based-- to help foster civic engagement and create social capital, and waded through a few pitfalls of these technologies as well. The two lessons I tried to distill out were: first, successful tools won't simply offer an online environment, they will bridge the online world with offline communities and actions. Second, these tools will cross some of the cultural, political, class-based and interest-based boundaries that so often keep us in narrow information silos on the web.

In seeking to build social capital and bring people together not just online but offline, proximity is, of course, key. I don't begrudge rural regions their elemental place in American society or question the importance of rebuilding social capital there, as well, but nowhere does new technology have greater potential to bring people together than in the city. Densely, diversely populated, well wired, and with a melange of public spaces, businesses and fora to bring people together-- the city is the ideal environment to pursue these goals.

By bringing people together in cities over common concerns, the same tools can help make those cities more livable and more attractive. Of course, that's good for people who already live there. What's more, if city life is more appealing and less stressful, it could lure people back to cities. A trend toward urbanization would directly counteract the "sprawl and suburbanization" that Robert Putnam identified as contributing a full 10% toward the decline in social capital since the 1950s. And if that's not enough for you, population density is, as David Roberts writes in a great series of blog posts over at Grist, "the sine qua non of sustainability." That is, cities have, contrary to their sometimes sooty appearance, a smaller carbon footprint per capita than any village or town: the denser, the better.

There are myriad ways mobile tech can and have made city living more appealing. In terms of transit, bicycle-sharing programs like those in DC and Denver, and car-sharing businesses like Zipcar and Car2go are made possible by the internet, and made convenient by mobile applications. Social review and check-in tools like Yelp and Foursquare, and online deals like those offered by Groupon and Living Social make it easier to discover and enjoy the city around you. "Digital 311" services-- online mechanisms to report and track civic complaints-- have taken flight in many places around the world. A great series of blog posts at Mashable-- their "Global Innovation Series"-- is covering an array of new and interesting tools and applications that are making cities more livable, more sustainable and more fun.

Going the next step-- building and strengthening actual, diverse communities of people, and carrying those connections offline as bonds that might be considered social capital, is a step more difficult. Last week the NY Times chronicled one such case in Morningside Heights in Manhattan. A shooting near a playground rallied parents (most of them middle-upper class and new to the neighborhood) to an online community forum and listserv, and they used the power of their network to petition local officials "not just for more police supervision in the park but for more opportunities for teenagers in the neighborhood." While their voices were heard, their efforts soon ran up against more systemic social causes-- poverty and low employment, racial and class divides-- that no technology could make disappear.

Part of the success in this particular case can be attributed to the fact that the community didn't just come together in response to a negative event: this online forum and listserv represented existing social capital in the community, and was a natural rallying point for a shared concern. "Digital 311" services, by contrast, while very useful tools, only solicit interaction around annoyances, and are unlikely to foster a positive community. But the effort in Morningside Heights ran into a wall for two reasons: first, when fighting violence and crime, there are simply not very many concrete actions a community, city or government can take. Second, the online forum was not representative of the local population, causing the underrepresented parts of the community to feel alienated and victimized by the petitioning and other activity. In web-based environments, there is an undeniable digital divide that separates socioeconomic classes, and was partially responsible for the division of the community in this case.

Interestingly, and hopefully, there is actually no measurable digital divide on mobile devices. As Pew has documented, traditionally underprivileged minority groups in the U.S. are, if anything, more active users of mobile devices and particularly mobile internet than whites. This doesn't make the digital divide disappear-- it's difficult to browse an online forum on a mobile device, and even harder to update a resume or apply for a job-- but with a relatively flat playing field in mobile, tools built specifically for these devices can have equalizing effects. It seems fair to point out that class-divided cities are older than Dickens' London, and communities genuinely integrated across class lines are a rare thing: trying to fix these challenges with or without new technologies is a tall order. But it's something to aim for, and something to keep in mind.

As you might have guessed, I'm not building toward the unveiling of a billion-dollar idea that will create stronger communities across America and around the world. I don't think there is a single such idea. But despite the challenges I've run through, mobile tech, social media, and other network technologies can act as an extension of the public sphere, bringing people together within cities, and rebuilding some of the social capital that has dissolved in recent decades. By providing a forum to explore and connect with the city around them-- the shops, parks, transit, services, etc.-- and the people in their neighborhood-- through the arts, the local environment, youth events, community gardens, crime prevention, and the other elements that hold a community together-- these tools can help reconstruct the social fabric of America that has frayed in the past half-century.

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