Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Evolutionary Theory, Social Networks and Cities

The New Scientist has an story by David Sloan Wilson about how evolutionary theory can improve urban life (Use link below). Wilson applies his knowledge of evolutionary processes to the ideas of people like Elinor Ostrom. One way he has applied his work to practice is through a "Design Your Own Park" project (details at this link) that brought communities together to improve their lives. One compelling finding of Wilson's is that people adapt to the neighborhood where they live more than they change the neighborhood after they arrived. These findings are important for understanding how policy interventions are likely to play out among the population at large.

Social scientists have long searched for clues as to how powerful social networks are for shaping behavior, and Wilson's work contributes to this field. There are not obvious characteristics, however. Duncan Watts, in technical research and in his book Everything is Obvious Once You Know the Answer, argues we know less about contagion than people like Wilson suggest. Watts' research suggests that while a few "super-influencers" can provide more influence than the public at large, the difference is not as great as we intuitively imagine. Watts explains these results as influence is spread through a contagious (or perhaps evolutionary) process, the ultimate outcome of adoption or decline has more to do with the overall structures of networks. (See pages 94-104 of his book for detailed explanations.)

This is all interesting stuff. Many transportation policies that I favor, such as cycling, walking and shared-travel, are not really the types of interventions that will succeed based on large investments that galvanize or attract the public. These policies need some type of social mechanism to promote adoption. In certain cases we see similar behavior for car buying, where Berkeley drivers like to buy Prius. In addition, social networks as a framework for policy design can help address problems of heterogeneous preferences. As of now there are not too many planners doing research in these fields, but hopefully that will change soon enough.

Original story at New Scientist is here:
Evolutionary theory can make street life better - life - 29 August 2011 - New Scientist

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