Communication
February 12, 2013

The importance of common space

In 1949, Aldo Leopold wrote A Sand County Almanac, a rich portrait of the world within the woodlot behind his house. In the case of a white pine and a red birch crowding each other, he devoted pages to the thought process behind which tree to cut, considering orientation to the sun, the relative populations of each species, and what plants would thrive around the base of the survivor’s trunk. Instead of missing the forest for the trees, Leopold saw both, and everything in between; he saw the astonishingly complex ecosystem, rather than a seemingly simple woodlot.

In 1961, that level of deep understanding was applied to cities by Jane Jacobs, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs penned three chapters on sidewalks alone, noticing (among many other things) that block length and sidewalk width have significant impacts on how people interact. Wide sidewalks allow children to play near their doorsteps, which creates interactions between parents, shared responsibility for kids’ safety, and, eventually, trust and friendship among neighbours.

What Leopold knew about ecosystems, Jacobs knew about cities: deeply complex interactions lay behind success in each environment. For public service leaders, the lessons are that environments drastically affect how people work together, face-to-face contact is key, and design can facilitate results, whether for sidewalks, woodlots, buildings or even democracies.

HUB is a network of collaborative working spaces, spanning five continents. The organization embodies the fact that face-to-face contact is irreplaceable, and that linking people through shared space creates powerful, unpredictable results. HUB Ottawa is a stimulating open space, and every wall is subtly used to connect people. One showcases members’ projects, one is plastered with members’ pictures, one is a talent marketplace, and one lists the events that create interaction opportunities. They call it engineered serendipity.

Environment affects people in myriad ways. Collaborative, common space fosters teamwork. There are stacks of literature on the effects of plants, colour and light on creativity and productivity. Even the positioning of bathrooms and kitchens can influence how often people bump into each other and talk. And this last outcome is not spurious: M.I.T. found that 80 percent of breakthrough innovations happen through informal interactions. The lesson from Jacobs and Leopold is not to try to oversimplify this, but connections between people are simply powerful.

Scaling up these lessons, environment can also impact how citizens interact with their government. The divide between public institutions and the public is, unfortunately, characterized by mistrust and misunderstanding. Since 2004 we have seen a drop of 20 percentage points in Canadians reporting satisfaction with their democracy. Only 14 percent have a distinctly positive view of civil servants’ public policy role. Politicians are slightly less trusted.

The U.S. General Services Administration recognizes the physical element of this divide, and has publicly declared the importance of public spaces and the government role in creating them: “Too often, areas where civic buildings are clustered together appear sterile, cold, and lifeless. They are no longer places where one can have the regular, random encounters that foster the kind of social contact… In other words, they fail as public spaces, leading to squandered economic opportunities and public indifference to – or even distrust of – civic institutions.”

Deficiencies on sidewalks, in offices, in cities, and in public spaces can be overcome, of course. Leadership, communication, and culture can create interactions and trust that would otherwise arise naturally in a nurturing environment. And increasingly, technology can help fill gaps. Treasury Board President Tony Clement has hosted Twitter townhalls; the province of British Columbia launched an online civic engagement hub called GovTogetherBC; and the sociopreneurs at CitizenBridge.org are taking parl.gc.ca data and remixing it on a platform that allows discussion.

These initiatives are laudable, and there is no shortage of potential here. But shared space and a focus on fundamentals are still key, and face-to-face contact and the whites of the eyes test still cement trust and drive success like nothing else. Studies of corporate labs have shown that teams with more contact are more successful. Another study proved that even scheduling employees’ breaks together can significantly increase productivity.

Our public institutions and our democracy are products of our bureaucrats, politicians, citizens, and the interactions between them. It includes the Speech from the Throne, but also two public servants sharing ideas in a coffee shop, senior leaders speaking at events, and Canadians talking on street corners. It’s the forest, the trees, and everything in between. We must appreciate this, and nudge it along wherever possible.

Kent Aitken lives in Ottawa. He is working for Public Works and Government Services Canada, helping build the GC community, and working on an M.Sc. in Economics.

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