Bridging Social Capital & Systemic Design

By SDXer Nadine Riopel

Lately, I’ve been really taken with the challenge of bridging social capital, and it came up for me again at SDX6: Epic Tries, where I was asked to participate in a panel reflecting on our experiences of trying things, failing, and trying again.

Social capital? I know, it’s jargon. Let me explain.

Bridging social capital represents the ties/relationships between people who are dissimilar. It’s the toughest kind to build, and arguably the most underdeveloped. But so important — without bridging social capital, it can be too easy to forget that our perspective isn’t the only perspective, that the world looks different through the eyes of others, that we can’t design things to work mainly for people who look and think and live like us.

Bonding social capital, the ties between people who are similar, is also important, but relatively easy to build. People who go to the same church, work in the same industry, live in the same neighbourhood — they have bonding social capital. It’s supportive and healthy, as long as it isn’t built on a foundation of us/them, and as long as it’s balanced by enough bridging social capital to prevent the illusion that the group’s worldview is the only valid worldview.

So how can bridging capital be incorporated into systemic design and the work of SDX?

My experience with social lab processes to date is that they tend to be quite intellectual, quite academic (meaning, for people with higher education). There’s a lot of enthusiasm and passion and purpose, but when I try to imagine how it would look to people who are different from those in the room, it starts to take on a bit of a problematic aspect.

In my breakout group, for example, on the value of strong facilitation, we got heavily into analysis of the terms in the question. We got heavily into the idea of using facilitation to push people outside their comfort zone and prompt deep, transformational experiences.

SDX6 Breakout Group: Conversation Starter Question

And all I could think about was the group of people I was about to go and lead in my structured networking meetup: small entrepreneurs, salespeople, newcomers to our community. I imagine the SDX conversation would seem hopelessly esoteric and inaccessible to them. To them, in that context, strong facilitation is anything that enables them to gain the connections and skills they need to build their networks. To me, strong facilitation is anything that gives the group something of value to them — helps them achieve their goals. And that might not be meaningful transformation.

As we nerd out about advanced technique and deep theory, how is that serving regular people who are just trying to get by, who have more prosaic concerns and goals?

Maybe we need that level of discourse in the system somewhere, but where’s the bridge to the blue collar worker or the recent health care grad? Do they need to be involved in those high level conversations to benefit from them? If not, how does that benefit translate?

How do we avoid becoming an ivory tower; translate our intense and profound explorations of topics into something that has impact for everyone? How do we make sure we have enough bridges to other perspectives?

Nadine Riopel is an Edmonton-based facilitator and connector. She is an SDXer “because someone I trust and value asked me to be.” Follow Nadine on Twitter @nadineryeg.