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My networking is not working!

Last May, I gave a keynote talk at a CreativeWorks London event, called ‘Joining the Dots’. I was asked to talk about a paper I co-authored (with Tim Vorley and Richard Courtney) that focuses on the networking paradigm, but to a more ‘business-friendly’ environment. While I have recently been working more on creativity that is subversive in an urban context, I think there is some conceptual (and critical) common ground with some of my earlier work on networks that this talk showcases. Anyway, the talk is in the video below (please excuse my appearance back then as I had recently been in a cycling accident that was completely my own fault…)

P.S. Incidentally, this is my 100th post on this blog. Not sure what that says about my productivity, but I’m sure it’s not good….

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Heterophily: Why you should follow people who you disagree with on Twitter

Networks are a crucial component of the social sciences these days. They are theorised about in almost every sub-discipline and constitute the fundamentals of many concepts and prevailing theories of society and space. One of the major works cited is Mark Granovetter’s ‘Strength of Weak Ties’ argument in 1973, revisited in 1983. Essentially, weak ties are those ties ‘outside’ the core connections that any one actor has. Granovetter uses the example of acquaintances and friends, where the former are more structurally crucial to a network than the latter. In other words, if you operate solely within your group of ‘close-knit’ friends, then there is little or no expansion of that network and hence the proliferation of linear thought; a process known as homophily. Heterophily then is when networks are predicated on difference, or by exploration of ‘weaker’ ties to any given individual – a phenomenon which discourages linearity, and embraces rhizomatic thinking.

Granovetter’s example of ‘ego’ applies to individuals, however the same process has been applied to businesses and hence a major branch of innovation studies being focused on the importance of the heterophilic associations of companies, rather than the more familiar ties/connections. Another branch of thought of the ‘weak ties’ argument can be appropriated in the arena of social networks, in particular, Twitter. As those of you who follow me will know, I use it far too often than I should, but I find that it has really benefited the readership of my work, as well as aiding my discovery of great new bits of information and knowledge, most notably in relation to my work on cities and urbanism. I have built up a network of friends/followers with the same interest in cities, with the same outlook and similar feelings about how cities should ‘be’ and theorised upon. Much akin to what Mr Collins sang about all those years ago, I have in effect, built up a homophilic network by following those who follow me and vice versa. But, as Granovetter and the subsequent literature on networking suggests, these homophilic networks are not as conducive to innovative practices or simply expanding networks.

But given Twitter’s modus operandi, inevitably, people find themselves following/being followed by those with kindred interests; people with different views are simply ignored. But this is not indicative of a heterophilic network; it has no structural strength in weak ties. Hence, I am finding myself seeking out people with differing views to my own to follow, and no longer ‘unfollowing’ people who’s twitter feed has become either boring or down right offensive. While this can have annoying consequences, surely it is a necessary evil if we are to maintain weak ties on Twitter? As I have blogged elsewhere with regard to cities, diversity is a crucial component of a well-adjusted urban environment, and this is also the case with cities online, i.e. social networking. While indulging with like-minded people is clearly important and necessary (particularly in academic realms – you always need co-authors or simply people to back you up sometimes!), in the every world of twittering, I would argue that having the odd ‘weak tie’ is important for the health of your intellectual, cultural, political and societal inclination (that sounds a lot more bold than I mean it to, but you get what I mean right!?). Homophilic tendencies can have a negative effect in that it creates silos of opinion, which can, through positive feedback systems create over-exaggerated truths which manifest themselves in prejudice in the most inflammatory of cases. While this may seem alarmist, you can see the circulation of negativity on many internet discussion boards (the Enemies of Reason blog often posts on such things). The negativity and in some cases, offensive and hateful comments, are obviously a necessary symptom of a democratic and open society (as Evelyn Beatrice Hall once said “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”), but only through engagement, and discouraging these homophilic tendencies can they be ‘shouted down’ and ‘argued out’ in favour of something altogether more wholesome.

So, the next time you find yourself thinking about unfollowing someone because they said something you disagree with or they have a divergent interest, think twice – you’ll be cutting off your weaker ties. And when you’re looking for people to follow, try seeking out those who you ordinarily wouldn’t – heterophilic networking is an essential catalyst of a democratic society.


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Mapping London’s skyline

Architecture, the design of buildings and outdoor places is one of the most fundamental processes of human society – the production of where we live, where we work and where we play can all be attributed to the architectural profession. As an urban geographer, I am fascinated with the built environment and as the architects that create city skylines are a fundamental part of the creative industries, it represents an exciting cross-section of my research interests.

I wanted to share some recent work that I’ve been doing regarding social network analysis (SNA) and the architecture industry in London. Using SNA to map connections is becoming increasingly easier with online software such as UCINET and it can aid in the visualisation of networks, and with my penchant for Actor-Network Theory as a methodological tool, it allows for a ‘range-finding’ technique that can be further developed by qualitative techniques. Incidentally, Valdis Krebs, one of SNA’s main protagonists, is on Twitter (@valdiskrebs) and often posts great SNA resources.

Also worthy of note is a former co-worker of mine, Eva Cardoso who is responsible for the wonderful SNA diagrams and helped me with the research – I promised her work would not go unrecognised so here it is!

Before any SNA, the first step is to map London’s industry, and Map 1 below shows the location of the top 100 firms in London (based on turnover).

Location of top 100 architecture firms in London

We can see from the map above the top 100 firms (in terms of turnover) are clustered in central London, particularly the western part and the City of London. However, the clustering is not as intense as some of the other creative industries in the area, although with closer inspection to the WC area (Map 2 below), we see that there are two small dense clusters. The first cluster centres on Oxford Street and Bond Street, while the second is around the Tottenham Court Road and further research and analysis is needed to explore whether or not these companies communicate to produce increasing economic returns through clustering (i.e. the Porter model of agglomeration economies). It is worth noting that the maps only show the top 100 firms (in terms of turnover) and so naturally there would be a large number of small and medium sized firms within these clusters, also looking to gain an advantage through agglomeration.

WC cluster of Architecture firms

There are a number of other groups of people that are important to the construction of buildings – the companies and practices themselves, the globalizing politicians and bureaucrats, the global professionals and the merchants and media (see Sklair, 2005) Therefore, these groups of people (and their relevant institutions) will need to communicate regularly and as a result would benefit from proximity. Therefore, a central London location is not only important for agglomeration economics, but also for institutional and organisational advantages, i.e. to be close to the city planners, the local and national governments, as well as the media and related companies.

London’s Top 20 Tallest Buildings

So the economies of agglomeration are important, but in terms of individual projects, I have found myself asking if this agglomeration holds? Below is a list of London’s top 20 tallest (completed) buildings, with their height in meters in brackets:

  1. One Canada Square (235 m)
  2. 8 Canada Square (200 m)
  3. 25 Canada Square (200 m)
  4. BT Tower (191 m)
  5. Tower 42 (183 m)
  6. 30 St Mary Axe (180 m)
  7. Broadgate Tower (161 m)
  8. One Churchill Place (156 m)
  9. 25 Bank Street (153 m)
  10. 40 Bank Street (153 m)
  11. 10 Upper Bank Street (151 m)
  12. Pan Peninsula East Tower (147 m)
  13. Guy’s Tower* (143 m)
  14. City Point (127 m)
  15. The Willis Building (125 m)
  16. Euston Tower* (124 m)
  17. Shakespeare Tower (123 m)
  18. Lauderdale Tower (123 m)
  19. Cromwell Tower (123 m)
  20. Pan Peninsula West Tower (122 m)

You can see these buildings visualised here.

Each of the companies involved in the construction of each building (the information was sourced from Emporis.com) There are only 18 buildings used in the following network diagrams as there has been no information available for the Guy’s Tower and Euston Tower (*); hence those two buildings had to be excluded from the network.

Remarkably, the whole network as illustrated in the first diagram below, comprises one single component (self-contained unit) as all of its points in the component (companies) can reach one another through one or more paths. Accordingly the density of the graph is relatively high with 5.5%. The density describes the general level of linkage among the points in a self-contained network. The more points are connected to one another, the more dense the graph will be, in this case, it means that a number of companies worked together on multiple projects.

SNA diagram for London's buildings and companies involved

The network diagram below is the network with pendants (i.e. those  nodes with only one connection) removed:

Company-to-building diagram (with pendants – connections of 1 degree – removed)

193 companies were involved in the creation of the 20 tallest buildings in London, with Reef Associates being the most connected company. The majority of these highly connected companies are specialised in certain fields and operate globally, and they are:

  • Reef Associates is a leading Façade Access consultancy. They are based in London with involvements in international projects (including France, Spain, China and Germany).
  • Canary Wharf PLC, a property development and investment group, is the only company that does not operate internationally nor nationally as the group was set up exclusively to focus exclusively on ‘Grade A’ office space and high quality retail facilities at the Canary Wharf Estate and the skyscrapers situated there.
  • Sandy Brown Associates are consultants in the field of acoustics, noise and vibration control and operate in over 50 countries with its headquarter in London, UK.
  • Ove Arup & Partners (Arup) is a global firm of designers, engineers, planners and business consultants providing a diverse range of professional services and is the largest company in London; indeed it has a monopoly status in the capital.
  • Permasteelisa (UK) is leader in the engineering, manufacturing and installation of architectural envelopes (curtain walls), internal partitions and furniture systems. It operates in 4 continents with offices in 27 countries. It started its business in Italy.
  • KONE UK, a leading elevator and escalator company, is present in 50 countries worldwide and has its headquarters in Helsinki, Finland.

I am aware of the limitations of this data set and the presence of these companies may seem obvious, but my main aim here is to show inter-connected the companies involved in the construction are (network mapped here) and how London’s skyline has been built up only a handful of companies. Moreover, as a geographer, I wanted to show where around the world these companies are, showing how ‘global’ London’s skyline actually is.  The video below was created using a Google Earth kmz file of the location of London’s top 20 tallest buildings (the white arrows) and the location of each of the different companies that were involved in their construction.

Obviously companies based in London feature prominently,but as can be seen from the list above, the main companies involved in the network are spread across the world. Also, the presence of a large number of New York-based companies is poignant as it provides some more evidence for the NY-LON thesis purported by the urban geographer, Richard Smith. The project-based nature of the architecture is often thought of as being heavily project-centric (as well as the creative industries as a whole), yet it is the spatial aspects of those projects which is often overlooked, but is what has been exemplified here.

Much, much more could be done here, as this research forms only my initial forrays into the project-based nature of the architecture industy. Hopefully I will be able to continue it in a more formal setting, but in the meantime, I will continue to develop SNA and the GeoWeb in further research agendas.