Prior to the global outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), there was already indicative research illustrating that our society has become increasingly socially distant, and lonely.
In a 2018 survey, The Economist and the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) found that more than two in 10 adults in the United States (22%) and the United Kingdom (23%) say they always or often feel lonely, lack companionship, or feel left out or isolated. In response to this, the UK in 2018 officially added ‘Loneliness’ to the portfolio of the Minister of Sport and Civil Society, following recommendations from the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness.
Although there is debate about how these statistics are measured, the impact of loneliness and social isolation is already being seen in our personal, professional and political lives.
Before COVID-19 (BC)
Due to the correlation between increasing levels of technological advancement and loneliness, over the past 15 years, many cynically inclined researchers have attributed increasing loneliness levels to the rise of social media and technology through several nuanced dynamics.
As social media platforms become an alternative for interaction, researchers point to people substituting interactions with text messages or posts, thus decreasing the benefits that stem from face-to-face interactions, or interrupting real-life interactions with constant notification checks. Further to this, multiple studies have been done which assess the relationship between social media and mental health, citing strong correlations among youth who experience the ‘Fear of Missing Out’ (FOMO) or ‘Instagram Envy’. These dynamics have often been used to illustrate how technology has led to increasing levels of social isolation and loneliness.
These arguments were at their height during the onset of social media adoption – however this discourse has receded since, as we have accepted digital connectivity as a new reality. However, this does not mean that South Africa has been immune to the negative impacts of social isolation in various spheres, as higher levels of loneliness and poor mental health lead to unmotivated employees and the dampening of human inspiration which in turn hinders innovation and productivity.
However, in an interestingly self-correcting manner, it seems that innovation was born in response to the disintegration of social relationships. Over the past five years we seem to be experiencing the rise of what we can term the ‘constructed community’. Ironically, utilising the platform economy developed through widespread digital adoptions, people in our society have been combating social isolation by creating their own communities, which seek to recreate the benefits of the communities of our forefathers, but are inherently inorganic in nature.
Online communities are the predominant constructed community which come to mind. Groups which connect via Facebook groups, reddit or networking sites epitomise social media at its best – an opportunity for like-minded people to connect and exchange ideas and form relationships, transcending the confines of geographic boundaries or social position.
While many of these communities remain in the virtual world, there are some which spill over into the physical, and in so doing have created business opportunities. Founded in 2002, Meetup is a platform which connects people with similar interests and enables them to set up meetings in person. Crowdfunding on platforms such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo and Patreon as well as peer-to-peer InsurTech models such as Pineapple have emerged as modern-day equivalents of stokvels: ways to utilise the community benefit of pooled capital, but establishing the community in a more intentional and digitally-driven manner.
Another constructed community trend which has exploded is the growth of co-working spaces. Given the challenge of increasing property prices for established firms, and the rise of gig workers who are working remotely or independently, there has been an increasing demand for a ‘third space’ which combines the benefits of the home and the office in a more flexible manner.
Besides the dramatic rise and fall of WeWork, there are a number of other co-working spaces being established and expanding in South Africa, including Workshop17, the ImpactHub, Growth Space, Cube Workspace and a number of other smaller scale enterprises. This trend indicates that people are seeking to relate to communities of businesses or support services which provide them with the support they would not otherwise receive if isolated.
A third type of constructed community is the events industry. In the entrepreneurship and business world specifically, conferences have always been critical for building professional communities. However, in recent years it seems that more start-ups are emerging which specialise in event and community management. HeavyChef, for example, has created communities by facilitating learning opportunities for entrepreneurs in South Africa, and hosting networking and informational events.
As social creatures, it is no surprise that our need for mutual connection is sustaining technological shifts, and we are finding new ways of constructing communities considering the emergent challenges of our time. Nothing has emphasised this more than the past few weeks, as COVID-19 punctured our daily reality.
After COVID-19 (AC)
The call for ‘social distancing’ in response to COVID-19 has necessitated an extreme need for people to find new ways of working, and new ways of sustaining and establishing communities. Despite the need to rapidly adapt and deal with the immense amount of adjustment required, we have seen people banding together, singing on balconies in Italy, blowing vuvuzelas here in South Africa and completing dancing challenges on TikTok and Instagram.
While it is evident that some are better equipped to make this shift to digital communities than others – especially given the high levels of inequality in South Africa – the experimentation required during this time poses lessons for the future about how we construct and conceptualise communities.
On 31 March 2020, I joined HeavyChef’s first live-streamed event, hosted on Crowdcast, a platform that facilitates live-streaming and webinars for large groups. Themed ‘The Futurists’, the connection between the future-forward platform and an event centring on Futurism, proved to be serendipitous and prescient for the moment. It was a first time experiment for attendees, as they listened to presentations by Bronwyn Williams, Dion Chang and Musa Kalenga. Face-to-face interaction between speakers and participants may have been absent, yet the ability to interact with other each throughout was no less apparent. Attendees leveraged communications functions such as Chat, Q&As and Polls, making the session more interactive and democratised than it may have been in the flesh.
There are several tools available, such as Crowdcast, which are empowering people to create and maintain constructed communities. Besides now widely used communication platforms such as Skype, Microsoft Teams and Zoom, Immedia’s Fabrik and PAL platforms are great examples of how software can be utilised to connect people in a seamless manner.
Immedia seeks to deliver software solutions for media and managed communities to facilitate community engagement, while also providing community managers, such as radio stations, with more information about their listeners. This kind of multi-faceted innovation is exactly what we need in a time of increasing uncertainty.
COVID-19 is changing our society dramatically. In fact, many of these changes can be seen already. What states have done to fight the pandemic would have been seen as impossible but a few months ago. Despite the immediate constraints on our economy, wellness and social structures, many have begun to hypothesise what lies ahead in terms of our ways of working, international relations and healthcare systems.
There is no doubt that a process of Creative Destruction is in motion, and established institutions will face the spectre of existential threat. As these shifts happen, individuals and organisations need to be equipped with the necessary tools to construct engaged and connected communities.
It is already evident that constructed communities are becoming more important than ever. The need for dramatic social distancing during this time has underscored the risk of social isolation. We are now forced to proactively think about how to interact with others, and build our own communities in new ways.
It is a time for reflection, adaptation and agility.
We are reminded now more than ever that necessity really is the mother of invention, and crisis breeds innovation – especially when it comes to constructing communities.
To find out more how we think society will change, and business with it, contact Letsema’s Strategy team at email@example.com. If you want to speak to Annabel, connect with her over LinkedIn, a virtual community in its own right.