Street-Level Community Strengthening by Large Corporations

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JJ Cadiz
Microsoft Corporation

America has decimated its social and community fabric over the past several decades with technologies like the car and the television. Should large corporations like Microsoft attempt to address this issue, and if so, how?


Human intuition, common sense, and research (Lewis, Amini, and Lannon, 2000) all support the simple notion that people need each other. However, over the past several decades, our country has taken several steps to decimate the social fabric that helps us to help each other.

Putnam (2000) writes about the dramatic decline in civic participation since the 1960s in everything from the PTA to voting in elections to league bowling. Putnam argues that increased television watching is the most likely reason people stopped participating in their communities. On average, Americans spend three to four hours every day watching TV; in 1995, the average American spent 40% of their free time watching TV; and between 1965 and 1995, the average American gained six hours a week of added leisure time, and spent just about all of it watching TV (Putnam, p. 222 – 223).

Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck (2000) would argue that people watch so much TV because their communities are designed such that people have little reason to walk outside of their homes. Suburban planning necessitates driving to get anywhere, and the result is communities that are designed to be car-friendly instead of person-friendly. As a result, people seldom walk around their neighborhoods, bump into each other, and strike up the kinds of informal conversations that form the basis of strong neighborhoods. When people leave their homes, it’s almost always in their car (and while people are driving, the last thing they want to do is bump into each other to chat).

The effects of declining involvement in community are frightening. Putnam argues that the decline in community participation creates neighborhoods that aren’t as safe, economies that aren’t as prosperous, and people that aren’t as healthy or happy. In fact, if you smoke and don’t belong to any groups, joining just one group can have the same effect on your long-term health as quitting smoking (p. 331). Putnam also argues that the decline in community creates less effective schools, a view that’s supported by Wagner (2002). Wagner notes that spending time with adults is critical for developing adolescents, yet adolescents only spend about 5% of their time with their parents, and only 1.6% of their time with other adults. On average, adolescents spend 27% of their time by themselves.

Unfortunately, teens in our nation aren’t the only ones spending so much time by themselves. We have become a nation that spends incredible amounts of time behind the wheel and in front of the television instead of with each other. The result is dramatically weakened communities.

Can technology help to strengthen community at the street-level? Countless research and development dollars have been spent on technologies that allow us to connect with people on the other side of the planet. However, perhaps the most helpful technologies are ones that help us connect with people on the other side of the street.

What would such technology look like? The Internet already serves as a communications infrastructure that links homes, schools, and government offices, but the barriers to communication with our communities still seems to be too high. Despite research showing that communities can be strengthened with technology as simple as a neighborhood e-mail distribution list (Hampton, 2001), reports of widespread use of e-mail among neighbors seems to be rare. Getting my neighbors’ e-mail addresses requires that I knock on their doors. The barriers to communication are still too high.


Large software corporations like Microsoft could lower the barriers to neighborhood communication by:

1) Automatically generating shared virtual spaces for every neighborhood; every elementary, middle, and high school; and every local, state, and federal government representative district in the United States.

2) Building software that verifies that people live where they say they do and giving them the ability to join the appropriate shared virtual spaces.

3) Designing the software such that being a part of these communities is as simple as turning on your computer and connecting to the Internet.

3) Making the software ubiquitous (for example, by including it in the next release of Windows).

This conference asks “Tomorrow’s information and communication infrastructure is being shaped today…but by whom and to what ends?” Should Microsoft attempt to build this type of software? If so, what should the software look like, and what principles should it follow?

(Please note: In no way is this pattern submission meant to suggest that Microsoft is currently building or planning to build such software.)

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