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What is the future for social interaction?

10 years after the birth of Social Street, a disruptive innovation featured in the New York Times, founder Federico Bastiani asks what the future looks like for social interaction.

How many times have you entered a cafe full of people and once you have your order you cannot find a place to sit and wander around with your coffee in hand? In Bologna there is the Bar Maurizio, a historic Bolognese coffee bar where Maurizio plays the role of ‘facilitator of relationships’. If all the tables are occupied, he comes out from behind the counter, observes the people who are sitting and invites the customer to join one of the tables. Usually, the combination takes place with criterion, for example if the customer is foreign, Maurizio knows his loyal customers and knows who speaks English. Bar Maurizio has thus become a sort of informal community.

It is in the same spirit with which, 10 years ago, I created the first Social Street in Bologna, in Via Fondazza. Unlike Maurizio, I have a more introverted character, so to become a ‘facilitator of relationships’ I used a technological tool, the social network Facebook. The goal was to leverage technology to connect people in the real world. The technological means served to break down the barrier of mistrust, and then connect neighbours in real life. Ten years have passed since that experiment and in a decade the function of social networks has changed. Facebook’s slogan was ‘bringing people closer together’ and Social Street used the tool with that purpose. The slogan we created together with the co-founder, Luigi Nardacchione, was ‘from the virtual, to the real, to the virtuous’.

Bringing neighbours together, creating relationships based on organisational informality, this was the social innovation and the challenge. Can a community with weak ties manage itself without any organisational formalities? Without forming an association, without identifying leadership, without using funds? It was only the example of good neighborliness that guided social streets and inspired their formation in every part of the world. The experiment was partly successful. It was a difficult challenge and in fact there were not many social streets that managed to survive in the 10 years based on these dynamics.

Physical relationships do not seem to be fundamental in the future that technologies are designing.

Facebook was born with the aim of sharing, connecting, keeping in touch with friends, relatives, people with whom you had a certain type of bond but lived far away. Ten years ago, we asked ourselves the following question, “why only connect people who live far away when we can create real relationships based in our neighborhood?” Today social networks have changed their mission, the goal is to entertain users online in a passive way. Tik Tok was the first to change the approach and all the other social networks followed the trend. Just look at the timeline of any platform, the posts of ‘friends’ are fewer and other types of content customised according to the user are highlighted. The social network is interested in keeping the person connected online, not bringing them into the real world. In light of this observation, I asked myself: if I had created social streets today, would they have been as successful? Probably not. There are fewer and fewer opportunities and needs to relate to others.

What role will technologies play on the future of relationships?

Meta (formerly Facebook) has decided to invest heavily in the development of the Metaverse, a virtual world  you can access through a virtual reality helmet to live immersive experiences. In some countries Meta is testing the Horizon system which, apart from the work environment (Horizon Worksroom), also provides the possibility to interact, socialize, play (Horizon Worlds) or go together to a virtual concert with friends without moving from your room (Horizon Venues). We are talking about testing because Meta is aware that the introduction of the Metaverse will have multiple repercussions on people’s lives and society.

For this reason, it commissioned an independent global study involving several universities around the world. The working group is coordinated by Mel Slater, a leading expert in social neuroscience. For Italy, the Politecnico University in Milano was involved with a working group coordinated by Giuliano Noci and Lucio Lamberti, professor of marketing at the Politecnico and scientific director of the Metaverse Marketing Lab. The Metaverse will change the way we relate. In addition to holding business meetings as if we were in presence, because the latest generation of virtual visors, are also able to reproduce the facial expressions of their avatars, it will be possible to virtually participate in concerts in the Metaverse with friends without being physically together but with each person in their rooms elsewhere. What impact will this have on human relationships?

Andrea Bassi, professor of sociology at the University of Bologna, warns of the risks of dissociation between mind and body. Spending a lot of time online has repercussions because languages change. “When knowledge was oral,” says Professor Bassi, “our brain developed in such a way as to store a lot of information, when knowledge became written, the brain developed in another way. Today we live in the society of the image, and this has effects that I can also see among my students. Twenty years ago, I could do lessons for forty uninterrupted minutes, today after fifteen minutes I lose the attention of many of them”. According to the professor, the dissociation between mind and body can create problems when we return to real life because in the virtual world, we can customise the world we want. We can introduce the filters we want, even avoid conflicts for example, which are instead an integral part of the real world.

In Japan, restaurants are now widespread where the customer does not have to interact with other human beings but with robots, as well as to check-in in hotels. In the United States, the first McDonald’s was tested that works entirely without the presence of human beings. Physical relationships do not seem to be fundamental in the future that technologies are designing. Aside from dating apps like Tinder, technologies don’t foster real-life meetups.

Community gardens in New York as social aggregators

I recently spent a month in New York and wondered about the ways of socialising that the city can offer. According to UN Habitat, by 2030, 70% of the world’s population will live in cities. Do we expect a life of virtual relationships, of time spent between work and online entertainment? What role will cities play in all this? I was in New York because I think it’s an interesting case study. It is a city that welcomes citizens from every corner of the planet. How difficult is it to integrate and interact with people in a busy city like the Big Apple? If we exclude work colleagues or ‘friends’ from the gym or bar, what other forms of interaction exist in the real world without using technology?

You cannot quantify the importance of a friendship born between neighbours.

In New York this role is played by the community’s garden, a sort of Social Street. There are about 550 in Manhattan alone. The oldest is the Liz Christy Community Garden founded in 1973. It is impossible not to notice it. It is the only garden in all of Manhattan to have a redwood planted inside it that sprouts between the buildings. In the 70s New York was experiencing a season of urban decay. The city did not have the financial resources to manage urban spaces and delegated many activities to private individuals. Liz was tired to see that her neighbour had to celebrate her daughter’s birthday in the small apartment where she lived. In front of her house, where today stands the Liz Christy Community Garden, there was an abandoned space turned into a landfill. Liz together with some neighbours, decided in an ‘illegal’ way, through a sort of guerrilla gardening, to arrange the space and transform it into an urban community garden.

Today Donald Loggins manages the garden together with about 20 volunteers, takes care of that space that has become a meeting place for the community. The West Side Community Garden, located on the Upper West Side, has also become a group with over three hundred members who take care of the garden which include a vegetable garden. On July 4th I was there to celebrate Independence Day with them. Everyone brought something to eat in a potluck gesture and a moment of meeting and sharing within the residents of the area was created. Judy Robinson, who manages the garden, tells me that the municipality does not provide any kind of help with the management but being on a public space, the agreement is to guarantee access to people by keeping the gate open for a certain number of hours a day.

All community gardens, unlike social streets, had to be constituted in the form of a legal entity and most charge a membership fee. As Paul says, who together with his wife Madeline, manages the Electric Ladybug community garden in Harlem, charging a fee was important not so much to cover the expenses as to empower the people who gravitate around the urban garden, to take care of the space. The Electric Ladybug Garden has a  fairly recent history. Created in 2010, it was strongly desired by the community as the municipality had identified that space as a housing destination given the lack of housing in New York. It was thanks to the work of convincing the residents, that today the Electric Ladybug Garden is a reference point for the community of Harlem, not only as an urban garden but also a space to celebrate anniversaries or organise outdoor cinemas using a projector and the wall of a nearby building.

Community gardens in New York today play a role as a social aggregator even if, being inclusive is not easy. There is a risk of turning these spaces into a sort of club. Although they are open to everyone, it is not easy to involve newcomers or those who are not historical residents. It was precisely for this reason that we decided to leave social streets totally open, without barriers to entry, inclusive, guided only by good example. To make the neighbours participate, it was not enough to say, ‘we are here if you want’, it was necessary to organize collective meeting moments, trying to actively involve the neighbours, but also to work on relationships one by one. In order to work toward taking care of the common good in a street, which could range to even creating a flowerbed, it was important to build relationships online and then intentionally offline.

For this reason, the first step of any social street involves direct knowledge between neighbours. It starts by exchanging advice in the Facebook group of the street, that advice provided on Facebook has a face that the following day you can meet on the street. You start to greet that person and thank him not only online but offline, a relationship was born. Where or what that relationship will bring is not important. It is difficult to measure the impact that social streets have had during these ten years. We can say that over 400 were born, that over three hundred thousand people in the world are part of it, that the New York Times considered it a social innovation worthy of note for its ‘disruptive’ approach but how much have they improved life in cities? It is difficult to say because you cannot quantify the importance of a friendship born between neighbours. An urban garden is something that can be seen and touched, social streets are almost all intangible. There is no register of subscribers to social streets, no data of anyone is kept, social streets continue to play the role of facilitator of relationships by creating opportunities for meeting in the real world, in a world that seems to go in another direction.

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Written By

Federico Bastiani is a freelance journalist, TEDx speaker, innovator, communication specialist. He writes about innovation for different media and he is also an innovator himself. In 2013 he created Social Street, a social innovation which spread all around the world and featured in the New York Times.


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