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Network Science and Community Engagement

There are many ways to think about a city from a scientific perspective. You can think about it like an engineer; as a set of water lines, electrical grid, asphalt paths. Is can be thought of as a financial entity; a business that must intake revenue to pay expenses. But before any single road is paved and any taxes are collected, a city must be a community that wishes to become more. And a community can be though of as a network.

A networked community is a complex web of interactions and relationships. When one person is neighbors with a second person, there is a network connection. The two can be represented as two nodes connected by a link.

One person connected to another

The connections can represent any relationship between two people or a specific kind of relationship such as family members, coworkers, neighbors, members of a community organization, etc. Now imagining mapping out all your own relationships in your neighborhood or office, or circle of friends. Quickly the interactions become something like this.

Many people connected to many others

This is not meant to be a complete explanation of networks and network science. It is only intended to give cities an understanding of the importance and impact of this kind of data. Network science maps social interactions in the same way geography maps land. And I would argue, just as maps are critical for city functions such as zoning, network maps can be critical to understanding community engagement.

Social networks are networks in this same way, but these are not usually restricted to one city or state. This is why an idea can easily spread from one person’s Facebook page to the other side of the world in a single day. Ideas in a social network online spread like the flu in a community network. Why not use the power of the community network to spread ideas as well.

The structure of a city networks is usually a very dense since everyone knows everyone. According to scientific literature on networks, this is true regardless of the size of the city. However, larger cities tend to be more connected than smaller ones. The connections among people are more important than the number of people in the network. Highly connected networks allow simple ideas to spread rapidly, while complex ideas become far more difficult. Therefore, a funny picture or gossip spreads quickly, but long works of literature spread slowly by word of mouth. Both are ideas being spread in a network of people. Unfortunately, the idea of getting a community engaged for a common cause is usually a complex idea and therefore harder to spread.

“So how do we get our citizens engaged?!” is hear you screaming at your copy of Local Focus. Network science can provide many details to better understand specific networks, but only general recommendations for all networks. That being said, here are a few ideas from networks.

1. Understand how your city is connected (Understand the network structure)

Find out not only who knows who in the community, but which organizations have a relationship with others. Networks don’t have to be just about individuals, this can be about the network of civic organizations or informal “clusters” of people that are highly connected. The picture above of the complex network has clusters of nodes that are very close together. Identify the people in these clusters to better understand the formal and informal relationships in your communities. And if possible, map this out; even on scratch paper.

Also, understand how the structure of the community network is changing. Many small towns in America are changing rapidly. Young educated individuals are leaving in the so-called “brain drain.” At the same time, older, wealthy retirees from more urban areas and migration of first-generation immigrants has changed the composition of many cities. This is reshaping the network structure in a way that can create divisions in the community. Understanding this if it describes your community is critical.

2. Find the highly connected people (find the central nodes)

In my experience, community engagement staff in cities are very good at this already. Every city has a person that “simple knows everyone.” Find that person. They are an excellent way not only to connect to large swaths of a community, but also to spread ideas whether they are simple or complex. However, the highly connected people are according to network science, often not the first person to spread the idea.

3. Find the “Early Adopters” on the perimeter

Early adopters of new ideas are often not at the center of a network. Instead, they usually appear at the edges of networks. This may be due to the more central people, worried about their position in the network, are more hesitant to adopt new ideas or to spread ideas that could reflect poorly on them. Early adopters are those individuals that will spot a good idea and adopt it with little notice or persuasion.

4. Get everyone on board (cause a network cascade)

Crafting a program for community engagement that appeals to both centrally located people and early adopters on the edge of the network can be difficult. However, if this is accomplished, the results will be a critical mass of people adopting the idea and spreading the idea of to all parts of the local network and a “network cascade” or an unstoppable spreading of the idea, will occur.

5. If there is no network, build it

Communities have increasingly become less and less engaged and connected over the last few decades. This fact is the reason why community engagement is a matter that must be addressed by cities in the first place. From a network science perspective, this means the network links are being severed. A severed network means ideas cannot spread as fast, or at all, to the entire community. For this reason, creating these connections will also have to be an important goal. Map the network in your own city, spot the gaps, and fill them in. If the makeup of the city has shifted and the network doesn’t look like it once did, create ways to connect the new clusters of people and the old.

Work Cited

Catlaw, T., and Stout, M. (2016). Governing Small-Town America Today: The Promise and Dilemma of

Dense Networks. The American Association for Public Administration, 76(2), 225-229.

DellaPosta, D., Nee, V., & Opper, S. (2017). Endogenous dynamics of institutional change. Rationality

and Society, 29(1), 5-48.

González-Bailón, S., Borge-Holthoefer, J., Rivero, A., & Moreno, Y. (2011). The Dynamics of Protest

Recruitment through an Online Network. Scientific Reports, 1(197).

Granovetter, M. (1978). Threshold Models of Collective Behavior. American Journal of Sociology,


Guilbeault, D., Becker, J., & Centola, D. (2018). Complex Contagions: A Decade in Review. In S.

Lehmann & Y. Ahn (Eds.), Spreading Dynamics in Social Systems. Springer Nature. (Forthcoming).

Pan, W., Ghoshal, G., Krumme, C., Cebrian, M., & Pentland, A. (2013). Urban characteristics attributable to density-driven tie formation. Nat Commun, 4(1961).

Putnam, R. D. (2007). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

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