Build the architecture of cooperation

How can we design spaces in the city which encourage strangers to cooperate? In this lecture, sociologist Richard Sennett explores how physical structures influence social structures, and more specifically how they influence our ability to cooperate.

In Sennett’s view, cooperation grow from informal interactions between people and requires willingness and trust. In our current world based on materialistic value, these informal interactions and the trust capital that they enable are usually forgotten because they can’t be quantified easily. Worse our values and architecture actively encourage the loss of the skills of cooperation.

Sennett argues there are three essential qualities required for cooperative behaviours:

  • diaologic (as opposed to dialectic), the ability to listen to meaning rather than words, to focus on problem finding rather than problem solving,
  • subjunctive way of talking (as opposed to declarative), the ability to keep some ambiguity that allow some interaction to take place rather than a dominating “I am right” way of talking
  • empathy (as opposed to sympathy), the ability to have a cool interest in other than yourself, to be open and curious even thought you don’t ncessarily identify with the person.

For these social qualities to develop, the physical space is important. We need spaces to grow these qualities and increase our cooperative abilities.

Sennett distinguishes boundaries, where interactions are low and which he calls “forms of death”, and borders which are zone of rich interactions (examples in nature: land and water, salt water and sweet water zones, …).

He argues that natural borders such as cell membranes are BOTH resistant and porous and that this quality of balancing protection and openness is crucial for cooperative social interactions.

His main point is that in our “modern” world :

  • we have lots of boundaries and these boundaries are deskilling people for cooperative abilities
  • our current physical architecture deskills people for collaboration
  • our social architecture needs to develop skills essential for collaboration (dialogic, subjunctive, empathy)
  • our physical architecture need spaces for developing these skills: edges with both porosity and resistance

Most recommended to watch the whole lecture.

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