I hope to have graduated by the time the proposed move to White City happens, for that reason I have not engaged much with the discussions around it. By total coincidence, while looking at the topic of social capital as part of my research, I realised a lot of the material I was finding could be relevant to the move. I thought I’d briefly write it up in case it’s of interest.

Much of what I’ve been reading confirms the obvious: people who work or study (spatially) close to one another form more social ties than those who are separated. I was surprised at how consistent and pronounced the effect is.

Reading Burt’s Brokerage and Closure1, my attention was piqued by his description of Festinger’s work. It shows that MIT students are predominately friends with people with whom they share dorm, and even within dorms location has a powerful influence2. Just being nearby one another was the single factor most important in determining friendships.

Why does that matter? Helliwell and Putnam suggest three possible sources value in university attendance3:

  • Higher education has the explicit goal of imparting skills to students (increasing their ‘human capital’).
  • University is also a place to meet people, thereby forming new networks that increase chances of finding others to productively collaborate with. Those networks can also convey information and norms that are not explicitly taught, especially information such as job offers4. These effects are together termed ‘social capital’.
  • Finally, higher education is thought to be a way of ‘signalling’5 – attending a prestigious university shows potential employers that you are committed, diligent and intelligent.

Social capital’s importance is traditionally captured in the phrases ‘old boys network’ (a similar phenomena apparently exists in Korea6), and ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know’. We have the idea of the ‘invisible college’7 to capture the value of social capital’s influence in academia. Whatever the ethical status of these elitist systems, the point remains that social connections are important. I think most people would intuitively agree, perhaps especially so in the arts.

If social capital is important, how do spatial factors change social capital formation? The literature is too copious to go through in detail (I’m already procrastinating by writing this), but some work stands out. By surveying 7 R&D labs, Alen and Fusfeld find that frequency of communication between researchers falls off strongly with distance, finding that working within 30 meters of another person greatly enhances the probability of frequent contact with them.

More recent research by Kabo et al compares two biomedical research labs with different spatial layouts to confirm that distance is a powerful factor when it comes to collaboration8. The research is able to go further and suggests that the critical factor is literally how often researchers’ paths cross. In this study, a 30m increase in distance between researchers reduced the probability of collaboration by 25%. Work at the Bartlett reaches similar conclusions9.

At the scale of communications between geographically separated offices, communication is also known to tail off exponentially as distance increases, including by electronically or by phone, a phenomena described by the Allen Curve10 11.

Further, it seems that the much of the cause of increasing collaboration with proximity is the increased chance of unplanned face-to-face conversation12 13, as opposed to convenience or some other factor. No matter how regular the bus service, unplanned meetings will occur less when students are split across campuses.

It could be argued that a small, isolated campus will generate a dense network within it, even if links to the wider university are diminished. Burt suggests that Ericsson’s famously innovative R&D lab benefited from such a dense network precisely because it was located in the small, isolated town of Lund in Sweden. Such dense networks may be good for innovation, unfortunately they are exactly opposite of the wide networks that are most effective for job hunting when you graduate14.

Spatial factors have such a profound effect on social networks that they show up everywhere from banks to disaster response teams15. Some spatial factors, such as the effects of open-plan offices are contested, but distance seems to reliably and strongly correlate with social tie formation; more specifically the probability of social ties between individuals correlates with the time they spend in a shared space.

I’m sure that excellent teaching will continue and ‘human capital’ aspect at RCA’s offer to students is assured. The question of the RCA’s standing, the ‘signal’ a degree from RCA sends, is a wider issue than a move to White City — one that many people have expressed anxiety over.

Empirical research confirms the common sense view: the social network of students will be profoundly influenced by the move to White City, and that the structure of your social network is the determinant of social capital, which is in turn a key aspect of attending university.

On this basis, as I’m sure many others have concluded, it seems only right that some mitigation ought to be put in place by the University. I’m aware the new campus will be adjacent to a satellite of Imperial University, but this hardly seems compensatory since RCA South Ken is already next to Imperial proper. I’m not sure if anyone has been able to estimate the value of proximity to the BBC R&D facility, it does seem unlikely that it could offset being separated from the wider student body.

Perhaps the move is itself could become a research opportunity, or in some other way could be turned to students’ advantage? Perhaps specific contingencies can be put into foster broader networks?

1 Burt, Ronald S. Brokerage and closure: An introduction to social capital. Oxford university press, 2005.

2 Festinger, Leon, Kurt W. Back, and Stanley Schachter. Social pressures in informal groups: A study of human factors in housing. Vol. 3. Stanford University Press, 1950.

3 Helliwell, John F., and Robert D. Putnam. Education and social capital. No. w7121. National Bureau of Economic Research, 1999.

4 Lin, Nan. “Social networks and status attainment.” Annual review of sociology(1999): 467-487.

5 Spence, Michael. “Competitive and optimal responses to signals: An analysis of efficiency and distribution.” Journal of Economic theory 7.3 (1974): 296-332.

6 Lee, Sunhwa, and Mary C. Brinton. “Elite education and social capital: The case of South Korea.” Sociology of education (1996): 177-192.

7 Crane, Diana. “Social structure in a group of scientists: A test of the” invisible college” hypothesis.” American Sociological Review (1969): 335-352.

8 Kabo, Felichism, et al. “Shared Paths to the Lab A Sociospatial Network Analysis of Collaboration.” Environment and Behavior 47.1 (2015): 57-84.

9 Sailer, Kerstin, and Ian McCulloh. “Social networks and spatial configuration—How office layouts drive social interaction.” Social networks 34.1 (2012): 47-58.

10 Allen, Thomas, and Gunter Henn. The organization and architecture of innovation. Routledge, 2007.

11 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allen_curve

12Brown, Chloë, et al. “Tracking serendipitous interactions: how individual cultures shape the office.” Proceedings of the 17th ACM conference on Computer supported cooperative work & social computing. ACM, 2014.

13 Owen-Smith, Jason. “Workplace Design, Collaboration, and Discovery.” Ann Arbor 1001 (2013): 48109-1382.

14 Granovetter, Mark S. “The strength of weak ties.” American journal of sociology (1973): 1360-1380.

15 Doreian, Patrick, and Norman Conti. “Social context, spatial structure and social network structure.” Social networks 34.1 (2012): 32-46.

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