The Tacoma Sun


Small Worlds Theory and Livable Downtown


Nerd Blog: Small Worlds Theory and Livable Downtown

By Paul Sparks

Part One: Short, quircky, amateur commentaries on “Small Worlds Theory” and its relationship to the “Livable Community” of Downtown Tacoma.

What is “Small Worlds”?

Small worlds is a theory of maximum connectivity. It describes a real world phenomenon found in all types of effective communicative systems (the brain, the internet, viruses, etc). It happens when individual nodes engage in small clusters or “worlds” interacting tightly with one another (“strong links”). These nodes work together in Small Worlds while still maintaining the important connections to other nodes and clusters (“weak links”). This is illustrated in the connected clusters of the small diagram to the right. Small worlds and/or scale-free networks connect individual points with the least degree of separation between them.

What is the “Livable Community” of downtown Tacoma?
A livable community is defined by the quality of relationships shared within a particular geography. These relationships partner together for the economic, social, environmental, and civic life of the place they live. Tight-knit “small worlds” enjoy the potential benefits of proximity (context, relationality, collaboration, social capital etc.) without compromising the regional and global benefits of (transparency, knowledge, perspective, and resource sharing, etc.). They are big enough to live life in (clearly larger than a block) and small enough for a high level of spontaneous relational connectivity (clearly smaller than a region).

Short Premise
Throughout the ages most of the known world has lived with both the good and bad of life in primarily tight-knit community clusters (town, neighborhood, village, tribe, clan). Even in the few larger cities that existed, lack of mobility and primitive technology did not permit people to perceive themselves individually apart from community. With the industrial revolution and the current age of knowledge production, modern human society has worked hard to push the scale to the opposite extreme. Individuals can live as “free agent” monads without connection to local people and place. Living in what author Manuel Castells refers to as “the space of flows” we have lost the relational context that enables deep social transformation, the care of the created world, and the grounded identity of place.

The Paradigmatic Crux Of The Ages
We live at the paradigmatic crux of the ages: this is the first time in history that we have the capacity to live free from the destructive ignorance and tyrannies found in the isolated communities of old. It is also the first time since the history of the industrial revolution that we are coming to realize that there are crucial problems that can only be solved by a commitment to both worlds: that of local livable community and that of regional and global connectivity.

Downtown Tacoma
Downtown Tacoma is at a critical moment for shaping its future in an exemplary way. Three variables can make all the difference:

(1) A commitment to design and shape our built environment in ways that allow community members the freedom to live life (work, play, sleep, eat, relate) in one community.

(2) A commitment as members to develop more holistic patterns of life within the livable community context of downtown.

(3) A commitment to collaborate together with the other livable communities of Tacoma for the vitality and sustainability of all.

Want To Learn More?
Small Worlds theory is one of the many emerging scientific models that point us toward this local/global (glocal) model of life. (Part 2: Coming Soon)

Small World – Just for fun Learning Party Links
Link 1: Join the Grand Experiment (become the laboratory):
Link 2: Power Point Learning (watch the slides):
Link 3: Amateur Learning Party (you play six degrees):
Charts and Graphs: (See the incredible work of John Cage)

published January 27th, 2008

16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jen // Jan 27, 2008 at 8:42 pm

    I have felt pretty strongly for a long time that the idea of “free agents” is a complete fallacy. Certainly for parents life is much simpler and happier with a strong social network in place, but I don’t think it’s just in the context of parenting that this need becomes apparent, it just makes it much more urgent.

    Humans are complex, social mammals. It’s ridiculous to think we can conduct our lives without any real relationships and social ties. Think of the image of the rugged Western individualist, and how different that picture becomes when you imagine the worn out wife and starving kids next to him. Just because we can now be somewhat physically comfortable in “the space that flows” doesn’t mean it isn’t a very stressful, destructive way to live.

  • 2 Erik Bjornson // Jan 29, 2008 at 10:09 am

    Living in what author Manuel Castells refers to as “the space of flows” we have lost the relational context that enables deep social transformation, the care of the created world, and the grounded identity of place.

    That’s the adventure. To try to physically rebuilt a city which makes this possible.

  • 3 Chris K. // Jan 31, 2008 at 9:40 pm

    It should no longer be the policy of our city to chase investment, but to instead invest in ourselves by improving, supplementing, and expanding what exists today. We should endeavor to improve our urban form, business base, living standards, and human and social capital.

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