Social network analysis as an urban development tool

We all circulate in them. We all benefit from them. From a network of family to Facebook to organizations and boards of directors, social networks are what keep us connected and healthy, and willing to build communities that reach beyond our self-interest.  On a business or government scale, networks increase communication, avoiding duplicaiton of efforts, and foster that magic umami-like moment of  serendipity and innovation. At the same time, networks can also create insurmountable barriers if personal conflicts arise.


There’s been much written on the role of more formal organizational networks in spurring ideas and making things happen, but what about the role of social networks in urban development? BRR Network member Sarah Ficenec asks just this quesiton in her new BRR working paper, “Building Economic Development Networks in Detroit.”

Using social network analysis with the Detroit metro region as the backdrop, she documents the social networks that weave around and through Detroit’s corporate, nonprofit, and foundation communities and points to areas of both weakness and strength as it relates to future development.

The decline of Detroit is a well-trod story. Rising from the rubble are several innovative efforts to rebuild and reinvigorate. At the core of these efforts are networks of actors and interests, although as Ficenec notes:

There continues to be difficulty in working together across the region – both among the different jurisdictions as well as among various sectors. Economic development policymakers interviewed in fall 2009 and spring 2010 frequently voiced the belief that regional cooperation was better now than in the past; however, they also raised concerns about continuing problems in collaboration.

But, she argues, “Moving past this historical inability to collaborate may be necessary if Detroit is ever to rebound economically.”

Key findings include:

  • Boards of directors in the Detroit region are remarkably independent of one another.
  • The boards of publicly held corporations in the Detroit region are not well-connected, thus making it more difficult to share information among them.
  • The network among nonprofit organizations in the region is more densely connected than the publicly held corporations
  • Among nonprofit organizaitons, the Community Foundation is the most connected, and powerful; removing the Community Foundation from this network would severely disrupt the linkages among the other organizations.
  • Given their overlapping and influential connections, four organizations – two of which are focused on the arts and two of which are focused on economic development – can be primary actors in regional development. These four are the Community Foundation, the United Way, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and the Detroit Institute of Arts.
  • Big Auto and unions, the traditional powers in Detroit, play a small role in networks today.
  • While there are very little connections among board members of different organizations, there are more connections among the people identified as influential in economic development policymaking.
  • BUT, people identified by surveys as important in economic development communicate communicate very little with the other survey respondents.

Ficenec will follow-up this study with additional surveys and updates to the networks in the hopes that knowing how such networks operate and who participates in them will be important in increasing their value for economic development.

For fun, check out this social network mapping tool. Use your Facebook friends as a starting point. Also, check out “Connected: The Surprising Power of our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives,” by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler. Interesting read.

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