#05, May 2020


How Social Capital Helps Shape Public Policy

Interview with Daniel Aldrich, professor of political science and public policy and director of the Security and Resilience Program at Northeastern University, Boston.

Multiplying points of contact between public authorities and civil society creates connections that allow resources to be channelled into the projects and vision of citizens—not decision makers.

Raccords #05 - De la pertinence du capital social pour orienter les politiques publiques

Raccords : In a social innovation framework, resilience might be described as a step on the path of transitioning from the current paradigm to a place where the collective works together to regenerate both the natural habitat and social relationships. Resilience would then be a means of achieving self-sustaining society-wide regeneration in the long run. What is a useful way to think about resilience, and how does it relate to our capacity for transformation?

Daniel Aldrich : I see resilience not so much as a state but as a capacity to respond to a shock. Resilience responses typically fit into three categories. Mitigation happens when individuals or systems are able to sustain a shock. In an area prone to fires, mitigation would mean having an extinguishing mechanism installed in the house. Another response is adaptation, which could involve building a house below ground, where a fire above ground wouldn’t impact it. And transformation, in this example, would entail moving away from areas where fires take place. The mode and extent of that response depends on the individuals in the community and the system. The most common responses so far in the resilience framework have been either mitigating solutions or small adaptations.

Unfortunately, the idea that society is capable of transformational resilience as a continuous response seems unlikely and is not currently supported by evidence. We are very short-sighted as a species: we tend to think of most shocks as one-time events that won’t happen again once we manage to overcome them. Many of our systems and institutions are locked, unable to break away from normal procedures easily. And for that reason, society-wide long-term changes such as renouncing a carbon fossil fuel–intensive economy, or one based on the haves and have-nots, are incredibly hard to get going because they require both strong political as well as popular will. For someone who’s not living in a city that experiences flooding or heatwaves on a regular basis, even the concept of climate change seems abstract. For someone who does, it is much easier to recognize it, literally, as flooding becomes more frequent and heatwaves last longer and deplete daily food and water supplies.

What does incite large-scale change?

The most successful things that have happened in terms of building a new world so far have come from bottom-up as opposed to top-down, they’ve come organically as opposed to being imposed, and they’ve come from a broader interest in popular will. There are success stories we can hold as examples: Costa Rica going completely renewable because it believed preserving its ecosystems would benefit it in the long run, or Germany agreeing to pay more for electricity to lay off nuclear power. In both cases, the population wanted to go forward with the reforms. Directing society towards a goal comes down to dictating social norms, and that takes much longer, as can be demonstrated by the history of the civil rights movement in the United States.

On an international scale, the 100 Resilient Cities network gathers cities all over the world that joined voluntarily, without any umbrella organization like the WTO stepping in or overseeing participation or execution. They put in the time and effort to hire their own resilience officers, assess social and physical infrastructure and vulnerabilities, and develop their resilience program—but not every city joined!

If popular will is a major vector of change, market incentives, whether we like it or not, are also crucial. For better or for worse, the current economic order, by providing a selection of “green” consumer products, makes it easy for us to feel unburdened and to pick a Tesla over a standard fossil fuel–powered car, or over a Volt. The problem is that buying green is still buying: there is still one more car on the road that contributes to maintaining the current infrastructure. Another system would rely on discouraging the purchase of cars altogether by charging a higher sales tax, removing free parking, or charging drivers a fee for bringing their cars into the city during peak time, as London and New York have started doing. Those are market-based behavioural nudges that can steer us in the right direction.

Change at a nationwide scale requires that enough people be on board, and that the costs of our choices be priced by the market so that our behaviour aligns with the way we want to spend our money and energy.

Let us consider the current COVID-19 pandemic as a test of our resilience. What would you say can be observed of our current capacity—and willingness—to mobilize for the greater good?

The broader response of citizens from Asia, Europe, and North America is tremendously encouraging. Putting on a mask or staying indoors are individual sacrifices we accept to keep ourselves and others safe. The vast majority of North Americans’ willingness to stay indoors—83% of Americans are willing to extend this lockdown to keep people safer1—is a sign that we are willing to put ourselves and our money on the line to benefit society.

COVID-19 has shown us a glimpse of very positive possibilities, for instance by giving us some space to rethink our relationship to work. For every hour spent commuting, our engagement in the community drops: someone who spends about two hours a day commuting is 35% to 40% less likely to join a community association or a mosque or a church or to partake in communal activities in general2. If we can avoid the commute, work from home or not far from it, and only come into the office occasionally, we can then use that extra time to participate in the school board meetings or public consultations, get involved in a local community network, have a dinner party with our neighbours, even get a haircut or take a walk by the lake, and generally engage with our neighbourhood, our family, and any other organization we want to support. This is one example of how citizens can be given more opportunity to be present within their community, get to know other people, and take on a more active role in these people’s lives, therefore developing social ties.

How can social capital lead to resilience and, over time, to a new paradigm?

As more social ties form, cohesion increases. To what degree individuals feel part of a community, have a sense of place, trust their fellow citizens, and engage with them are all ways to measure cohesion between social ties. In turn, strong social infrastructure is, from what I’ve seen, the best predictor of an individual and a community’s ability to not only withstand shock but also rebuild in its aftermath. People trusting the information presented to them to be reliable and changing their behaviours accordingly also shows strong social infrastructure, because it means they believe they can rely on others and authorities.

Oftentimes when a shock strikes, like a pandemic, a natural hazard, or climate-related extreme weather, our first response tends to address physical infrastructure—ventilators, hospital beds, equipment, weather-proof buildings, schools, roads, bridges, and so on—but the building blocks that society thinks matter are really not the most important aspect of building resilience. Bonds and interaction are. Sharing important information, checking in, warning of a danger, helping someone to get out of their flooded house, providing care and assistance, delivering groceries, watching out for a neighbour’s children, and in turn asking for help when we need it: those combined stand a better chance at reinforcing resilience. If people care about one another, they will act for the benefit of one another, and little by little broaden the scope of their actions.

Are the measures taken to curb the spread of the coronavirus representative of the actions that need to be undertaken to shift the ecological paradigm and avoid the worst-case scenario?

COVID-19 is a threat that people can see easily because its consequences are immediate: their grandparents, neighbours, coworkers get sick. Climate change remains abstract for much of humanity. For the billion people in India, China, Africa and even North America who live way below the poverty line to envision climate change when they’re struggling to make a daily means, or for countries currently developing their industries like the United States, the United Kingdom, or Germany did a hundred years ago to refrain from taking that path, is a lot to ask. What the pandemic and our reaction to it did, however, is show potential and interconnectedness.

How can public policy grow social capital in order to stimulate bottom-up innovation that might accelerate systemic transformation for the greater good? And conversely, what can citizens do to influence policy?

The first thing policy makers can do is make sure they are hearing the voices of the community and listening to what the community wants, not what they think it wants. Public policy focuses on vertical ties between the average citizen and decision makers, and that is often where we can see a huge disconnect. Its goal should be to find what bottom-up plans are brewing—whether they’re about better care for the elderly or providing more shade in the summertime or during climate extremes—and connect resources and efficacy to bring those plans to life. Shocks open spaces for citizens to call for a transformational recovery instead of a quick fix. They might be realizing they’re ready for a broader net, not only this once, but as prevention of future needs. They might want a new system, like universal income or health care for those vulnerable populations who, at the beginning of the pandemic, didn’t want to get tested for COVID-19 because they simply couldn’t afford the $2,000 medical bill. The role of public policy is to enable grassroots ideas, and by doing so, to also help strengthen horizontal ties between citizens.

What it should avoid is force-feeding a vision to the community by way of expertise. Where citizens feel like they have no connection whatsoever with people in power, they exit the political sphere entirely. If the population believes its problems are not being taken seriously, it will disengage, it will renounce voting, it will stop speaking up for itself, increasing the divide between public policy and the people’s experiences. And that can be very dangerous. Democracy demands engagement and engagement is the best public policy.

If you were a governing authority at the municipal, state (provincial), or federal level, what key learnings from the current crisis would you bank on and build on?

The first takeaway would be that our societies are willing to sacrifice for others, that we do possess a sense of cohesion on which we can build.

The pandemic affords us an opening to rethink and decouple activities or habits. Massively moving away from fossil fuel–dependent jobs would already go a long way towards reducing emissions and shifting some of our behaviours within a few years. It will be very difficult for nations, much less the whole planet, to speak as one voice. Regions most likely to be impacted by climate disruptions, like coastal areas around the world, might have to lead the way because they can see the change, they experience the shocks. Bottom-up initiatives from those communities could then percolate up to state and national authorities, and once they do, they can seep down as well.

The government can be helpful in pushing for norm changes, but the combination of bottom-up pressure and market-based forces is likely to be the most successful in achieving collective goals in the months and years to come.

1 According to a poll conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, May 2020.

2 Rebecca Osolen and Nina-Maria Lister, Social Capital, Urban Sprawl, and Smart Growth: A preliminary investigation into sustainable communities in Canada, August 2004.

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