Urban Planning to Social Business: Social that Scales

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , , , ,


In November of 2011 Gordon Ross and I presented What Urban Planning Can Teach Us About Social Business Design at the Enterprise 2.0 Conference in Santa Clara (the presentation is loaded at the end of this post). I was excited about the presentation as it was a great opportunity to place the foundations of understanding social at scale into the Enterprise 2.0 / social business community (Stewart Mader and I have done this in the past as part of the One Year Club presentations).

A background of a masters in public policy 16 plus years ago gave me a great foundation for understanding social at scale through analytics and analysis, but also it primed me for all the “for fun” reading I did after graduation in urban planning and taking it to nice depths that professional tomes offered to get solid understandings. In 2004 I met up with a small group of designers and developers who were swimming in the flow of social software and found one of the very common traits across the group was many years of reading the same urban planning, urban theory, and and architecture books, which gave them a leg up on understanding how humans interact at scale. Until that point I hadn’t drawn the line connecting urban planning and the designing, developing and managing collaboration and social software services beginning in 1996. The presentation begins to tap into that understanding and where has grown to.

Gordon's did a great job with a write-up of his portion of the presentation, in his ThoughtFarmer blog post E2Conf Santa Clara 2011 – What Urban Planning Can Teach Social Business Design. This is my portion of the write-up, or the a part of the slides from 53 to 72. I’ve written before about Social Scaling and Maturity as well as Dave Snowden's Complexity Framework Cynefin, so I am starting beyond those related portions I haven't written about before.

Social Scaling

When considering social systems of any type it is important to understand what scale of social system you are dealing with. There are many decades of studying human social interactions at various scales and most of this focus has been using the lens of the city. Social software scaling and maturity captures a high level view of how it progresses, but this was influenced in part by how human settlements grow and their traits. The progression takes from small settlements with a few people, families, and businesses or farms labelled hamlets, up through villages, towns, and to cities.


Hamlets are small clusters of people in a location. The order of interactions between people is driven by need for protection, human social interactions, sharing or pooling resources, and common connections to the world that is farther away. There is little central infrastructure to begin with other than some paths that have emerged through use, likely a common natural resource that is shared (water, food source, etc.), and often a central place to meet (even if it is somebody's barn or other shelter large enough to have this collection of people to gather. The leaderships is most often ad hoc and is a person whom is comfortable gathering people, asking questions, and resolving issues.

In hamlets everybody knows everybody else very well. There is no hiding and what one person does may impact others directly. Social interactions are all rather simple.


The village is a larger collection of people gathered in a place. Villages have some infrastructure developing for roads, sanitation, distribution of resources (water, food, etc.), and often have a designated meeting place that is set aside for that purpose. There is a more formalized leadership framework, sometimes just by name but often by roles performed as well, whom people turn to for protection, resolving differences, and helping with making decisions about infrastructure related needs. Most people know of each other, but may not know everybody well.

This familiarity often keeps the common social model focussed on cooperation to get things done at the village wide scale. Often things can still be serendipitous as word of mouth networks still function well. Often the social interactions are still simple, but they are moving to being complicated.


Towns are the next step up in scale for human settlements. Towns have grown far beyond the first hamlet and have infrastructure needs that have become formalized and have the need for people to have roles related to servicing those infrastructure needs. Infrastructure for the town’s own needs may include: Roads; Sanitation; Health; Schooling; Protective services (fire and policing); Communication; Zoning and planning; etc. There is a formal central leadership role that has its own support system as well as responsibility to ensure the other infrastructure and support roles are functioning well.

The human social interactions have grown beyond the ability to know everybody. There is often a common central communication function that is central to the town for news. The ability to find others who can provide services or help is more difficult and word of networks do not work optimally to find resources and often do not work reliably at all. The ideal of cooperation is not longer the only social interaction model as competition and variations between cooperation and competition are in existence as commerce and friendly rivalries are used to optimize services and goods provided. These variations of governance, civic interaction, and social philosophies all move beyond the ability to function on the simple cooperation model.

The social model is complicated in that it takes a mix of cooperation and coordination for changes, but also to keep things running well.


Cities are the largest scale for local human settlements (there are megacities and other variations of scale beyond, but the differences are not as large as these and start getting into massive complexity and interdependencies). Cities require common infrastructure that is rather well maintained (well-maintained varies wildly depending where you are in the globe). Not only do cities have all of the central infrastructure resources and role, but they often have their own infrastructures and internally growing support roles. For example there is a fire department with many fire houses and their own jurisdictions with a central office and many roles there to fill in the gaps to ensure things get done and work as they should.

The human social interactions often scale to where people believe they may not be seen (well seen by those whom they know or know them) and are not familiar to many others around them. More granular distinctions are used to help people connect and have belonging and familiar social interactions. Cities require coordination for many social interactions at scale to take place and see things happen. Cooperation happens at the very small social scale, but often runs up against competition for resources and access from neighboring subsections of the city that drive it to coordination as the scaled social interaction model.

Cities function in complex social models. Gone is the regular ease of change with no impact on others. The ideal of cooperation is lost as there many different influences and pressures of the needs of other individuals and more often the needs and movement of groups that inhabit as well as run the city collide as their goals collide and conflict, even when trying to service the same purpose or goal.

Urban Planning at Scale

Differing urban scales have very different needs and realities around infrastructure, roles, social interaction design patterns and models that work or are needed. The small hamlet is often a focus, but the hamlet and its rather simple elements starts to become a limited model from which to view things with just a few hundred people. In cities this starts breaking at the one to two block boundaries. The village stage of growth and density, which kicks in with a few hundred people up to a the low thousands is often a good model to consider as a starting place (when considering social scaling for organizations the few hundred bounds hold up, if people are all in one location, but as soon as one or more additional locations are introduced the model looks a lot like the next step up to village with the complications that are introduced with the non-unified culture, multiple experiences and needs.

Urban Planning at Village Scale: Santana Row

Jumping in to the village perspective on social scaling, a good neat and clean view is that of Santana Row in San Jose, California. Santana Row is a 3 by 5 block grid of new urbanism mixed use and walkable planning (one of many of efforts by Federated Realty). It is a highly designed community that is an oasis or aberrant outlier in the whole of San Jose city, depending on one’s perspective. As stated by Gordon Ross' wife, “it is a great place to walk around if you drive there”.

Santana Row heavily proscribed design of space and use focusses the ground floors of the 3 to 5 story building to stores and restaurants and the upper floors for office and living space. It could be viewed as quasi-self supporting (lacking industrial and agricultural elements) for the roughly 1,000 people who live/work there. This village has a strong central management that proscribes use, design, and development of what happens in the bounds of the 3 by 5 grid bounds. It is not designed for emergence other than varying occupants of the spaces, which can be somewhat flexible, but it is largely held with in the already defined bounds.

As more natural social environs can grow, morph, and be emergent at, within, and beyond its initial bounds this planned village is less emergent and flexible. Use is constrained, for good or bad, by the heavily designed space. It is a social space that has set infrastructure, use, and size constraints that keep the development functioning with the same of similar vibe and experience across time.

Urban Planning at City Scale: San Francisco

If we take a quick drive up North of San Jose to San Francisco we can see social at a very different scale. San Francisco is home to 750 to 800 Santana Row by size and population. The map of San Francisco neighborhoods
C747bc65a85b7a2994df13f9fd2608bd (found at Justinsomina site) allows for some comparison with Santana Row. But, in a city the bounds between neighborhoods and sub-neighborhoods are drastically emergent and flexible over time. Even neighborhoods change drastically over time, just as the Hayes Valley neighborhood (a sub-neighborhood of the Haight) did after the 1989 earthquake and particularly after the freeway that bisected the neighborhood came down.

But, lets look at the center of this map and still at the Haight as a focus. The Haight as it is framed in this map is likely to contain 8 to 10 distinct neighborhoods with in it. Each of these neighborhood has its own feel and vibe as well as its own norms of acceptable business and behavior. The cultures of these neighborhoods can be vastly different, even as they abut other bounding neighborhoods.

The Haight contains the relatively famous Upper Haight, also known as the Haight Ashbury neighborhood that tries to keep its hippy culture mixed with the gentrified “painted lady” Victorian homes (some converted to multi-unit properties). Tie-dye and 60s hippy values are still at the forefront of this neighborhood’s feel and ethos.

Just down the hill from the Haight Ashbury is Lower Haight which is a mix of counter culture shops and establishments that mix with housing developments and through the 90s was known as the anarchist section of the Haight. There are no chain stores and there is a edge that is nearly tangible.

Heading up toward the Sutro Tower from the Haight Ashbury on Cole Street we are in Cole Valley, which is more family focussed than the Haight Ashbury and Cole Street has a mix of artisanal shops, restaurants, and bars. The family feel and more upscale offerings and comfortable places to hang out give it a different culture and values that what is found on Haight Street that it abuts just a few blocks away.

From Cole Valley we can head up Parnassus to the edge of the Inner Sunset neighborhood that houses UCSF Medical Center and a family and professional resident focussed neighborhood. The storefronts, restaurants, and living spaces all reflect this need and environment.

Small Neighborhoods Interwingled

What all of this gets to is a neighborhood framed in San Francisco with 15,000 to 100,000 people can have many smaller very divergent neighborhoods with in it. These neighborhoods have distinct culture, feel, and norms from what is proper activity and commerce for the sub-classification that may only be a few blocks by a few blocks. There are no firm borders and the boundaries are very fluid and intermix and intertwingle with ease. We know Cole Valley and the Haight Ashbury and Lower Haight are very different neighborhoods with interleaving boundaries and often with sub-neighborhoods emerging between them our of nothing.

All of this is emergent and at least complicated, but very much is a vivid description of complexity expressed and at play in the real world. The emergent and adaptive nature of cities, often with a very light hand of guidance (but in cases of Detroit and its massive contraction of population a more heavy hand can be a benefit). But, this reality helps us greatly understand the need for better understanding of human social environments at scale. We know that what works in one neighborhood will often not work in another neighborhood with out adapting it. Some neighborhoods in cities have strong neighborhood associations (some of these small active forces can change the whole of a city - see Harvey Milk (if you have time watch Milk) to get a better grasp of this at work).

As seen in the framing of physical spaces and the needs of the scaling social organization and infrastructure needed to support social scaling there are a wide variety of roles, support systems, different tools and disciplines (police, sanitation/waste, fire, health, property, finance, etc.), and central management roles for understanding as well as providing sane growth and adapting. In the time since 1996 when I started managing digital communities professionally, I started realizing and framing different social roles that were needed or at play and now have 20 I have framed and consider when dealing with social platforms and environments (see slide #64 in the presentation for the list of 20).

Social Business Software is Stuck at Simple

Given this realization that we have a variety of social scaling realities from out frame of looking at cities and other scale of human aggregation and organization in physical space, we can use the same lens to look at our own digital social environments. Most of our tools for social interaction and collaboration at best have two social roles, user and admin/community manager. The tools and ease of capabilities just are not there in many tools to help organizations using the tools beyond these simple roles.

Our tools are stuck at the Santana Row stage and are not easily emergent, adoptive, nor scale easily to more expansive realities. If the tool fits for one segment of the organization it is rolled out for more, whether or not their interest, needs, culture, or personality fits with in the designed constraints of a digital Santana Row. Our tools and services need to take the next step up to moving beyond the hamlet and village mentality of small, single focussed considerations.

A question that is always asked of me is what is the magic number for where these tools break and there is a need. The answer lies in understanding the essential variables: Cultural deviation, size, and location. If your organization has tight cultural norms and is rather unified in its view a simple social model can go rather far. Along this front how your organization handles when things do not go optimally (also state when things fail). The tighter the organization the greater a single or limited variance platform will take you. If you organization is rather accepting of things not going right and can turn problems into powerful lessons learned a single platform can scale. If the organization broadly doesn’t have good failure tolerance the scale of the service will be more limited, unless there are small comfortable spaces where ideas can be shared, vetted and honed before taking them broader. If the organization has no consistent way for dealing with failure or less than optimal outcomes a single simple platform will not go very far at all.

The size of your organization is another important variable. The larger the organization the greater the need for an adaptive multi-role and use services or collection of services. Few organizations can get away with a single approach with more than 3,000 to 5,000 people. There are some organizations that over time can get a very simple service to work across 15,000 or more. But, most often the tools start showing difficulty in the mid to upper 100s.

The last element is location. If your organization is all in one location or in very close proximity the ability for a simple tool to work at higher numbers of people using it is better, if the culture is consistent. Once you have more than one location things get more difficult as culture, norms, constraints, and other elements that impact use and consistency get strained. Think if a 400 unit high rise apartment building and the relative cohesion of community within that building, but another building next to it of the same or similar size can be quite different.

Social Scale Models

Another framing to think about this is simple social is two simple blocks resting next to each other sharing a side. The interaction point is just one common boundary and this simple difference is rather easy to maintain and interact along.

The complicated social model is a grid. The grid is working to balance the needs of needs around four different sides and how to balance the needs all around. The grid can be broken down in to rather straight forward interactions at the intersections of on the various sides, as long as those with whom they are interacting are staying relatively consistent.

Lastly, the complex is a fractal model that is always moving and the interactions are constantly shifting and each of the bounds are heading in a different direction and putting pressure and influence on those boundary elements it touches and interacts.

Next Steps

Where we often get with social tools and services inside organizations are a need for something beyond what we have. For a very long time social software has been framed through the lenses of understanding of social at scale. The common metaphors and framing echo some of the human social interactions used in the world around us that do not have mediated interfaces and services as the means of interacting.

Our tools and services need take the next step to getting beyond the simple social models were working in and around. The understanding of these next steps and there real existence can and will help shape how are tools can grow to meet our needs of social at scale and understand what is missing and needed to help people interact and be more efficient in their worklife. The individuals can get more out of this, but so with the organizations.

We have had 20 years or more of social software and collaborative tools now in its 3rd generation of services (KM, groupware, and now Enterprise 2.0/social business based on Web 2.0 principles) that we have dealt with and are living with. We have abandoned previous attempts as far less than optimal because the tools got in the way of how humans are social and did not allow for social scaling well. This current cycle has one hell of a lot of hope tied into is as the tools do a much better job of getting out of the way. Our next step is to start getting this still hopeful practice to embrace the understandings of social scaling.

Are you up for it? I am.