‘There’s an idea out there that human beings like to be alone. It’s a long tradition in political philosophy, from philosophers like Hobbes in the 17th century to Rousseau in the 18th and beyond, that humans are solitary animals that only came into societies through social contracts. In other words, society was a contract between isolated individuals who gave up their cherished isolation for the pragmatic benefits of being with other people. That notion has been proved to be manifestly untrue.’
Matthew Syed never minces his words. His journalism, principally his newspaper column for The Sunday Times, his books and radio programme are characterised by uncompromising straight talking. His interest is in why we do the things we do, why we behave in certain ways and how we can improve our lives by gaining understanding based on reality and facts, rather than notions that arise from peculiar cultural or political agendas. Or fake news.
And where community is concerned, Syed is convinced that this is something that is crucial to our development and wellbeing. ‘Humans are intrinsically social. This was our great advantage over other species. If you look at the size of the Neanderthal brain, it was bigger than that of our pre-human ancestors. But the Neanderthals died out. What we had was sociability. We humans lived in communities. And that meant that if I learnt something instead of that innovation dying with me, I could share it with my community. Early human societies began to innovate faster. And as we did this, our genetic predisposition for sociability increased even more. This has carried on – look at things like the agricultural and industrial revolutions. Community has become the dominant theme of humanity – our gift for sharing ideas.’
This may sound like we are a long way from the East End of London, but it is an argument that has a bearing on the creation of London City Island. Because the realisation that we like to live with each other, in communities, has influenced the design of urban living for decades. ‘When we are shut away from other human beings we actually feel physical pain,’ says Syed. So it follows that the opposite is true – living in a vibrant, sociable community is a source of happiness.
“London City Island is an example of how contemporary urban architecture understands our human need for community”
I was actually slightly blown away when I discovered London City Island,’ says Syed. ‘Particularly by the fact that it has attracted a range of wonderful creative institutions like the English National Ballet and its school, and the London Film School.’ It is an example, he says, of how contemporary urban architecture understands our human need for community. ‘The really great architects are interested partly in construction and the physical beauty and durability and material science of what they make; but they are also concerned with how to create spaces to enable us to do what we are built to do – which is to enjoy being communal organisms.’
Fundamentally, he explains, good architects are interested in people. ‘When Steve Jobs had the Pixar building designed, he made sure that the lavatories were in the atrium rather than hidden away in remote places. People had to walk past each other to get there. It meant they would bump into other people and have serendipitous encounters. Famously at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), building 128, which has incubated some of the most incredible innovations in human history, was designed to bring people of different disciplines together. You don’t have finance shut away in one corner, consultants in another. It’s about intermingling.’
It is this interaction of people and their ideas that leads to exciting opportunities, he explains. ‘Geoffrey West, the eminent theoretical physicist, has traced how in cities where you have this intermingling of diverse people innovation takes off. He calls it “super linear scaling”. He claims that if you double the number of people in a community then the number of innovations, patents and scientific papers goes up by more than double.’
“Recovery is about so much more than economics. It’s about feeling a sense of connectedness with other people”
We only have to look at the great moments in history when there was a flowering of knowledge to see the truth of this, says Syed: ‘Florence in the Renaissance, a city with beautifully designed spaces to bring people together; or the Scottish Enlightenment, where you had lots of clubs of architects, physicists and natural scientists, all close together. Today, the reason that Silicon Valley is such an extraordinary hub of innovation is that it works on the same principle. And it also has “third spaces” designed into it.’
These “third spaces”, he explains, are the places where people come together, not professionally, or domestically, but socially. They are the glue that binds a community together. ‘The first space is the home; the second is the office, but the third space – well that’s the café, the noodle bar.’
This is precisely what he finds at London City Island. ‘Creating diversity through the film school and ballet school, the residential apartments, the shops, the restaurants, the green spaces – that is a vision for a community that is going to be happy and enjoy spending time there, but also a community that is going to provoke creativity.’
He is also intrigued by how London City Island is creating a community that is also connected to the larger community of London through the many easily accessible transport links. That is a wonderful idea, says Syed, because a community is a complex, evolving thing.
‘What is a community? The key point of places like Silicon Valley is not that it is a set of discreet buildings – it is an ecosystem. A successful community needs to have different constituent elements to really work effectively. Its ingredients need to be diverse, and it needs to bring people of different ages, backgrounds, occupations and interests together. That combination will add to the richness of the experience of being there. It’s the same in biological evolution – innovation comes from the cross pollination of ideas. If everybody is exactly the same then that is an echo chamber. Diverse spaces – gyms, coffee shops, a central square – these allow and encourage people to share ideas. And that is where the magic happens.’
It’s important then for any community that there are spaces where people can interact. And, as at London City Island, they can be designed in. ‘If they aren’t there, the community will suffer badly,’ cautions Syed. ‘You need spaces where people can come together. In Paris and Vienna, for example, that was what café society was all about. Open spaces are very important too.’
Of course, all this has extra resonance now after our recent experience of enforced social distancing and isolation. ‘We’ve been talking a lot about economic recovery recently. But recovery is about so much more than economics,’ explains Syed. ‘It’s about feeling a sense of connectedness with other people. We know there are massive benefits for mental health in community. We derive meaning from being connected to other people. From the famous watercooler conversation to public squares and spaces, to shops; shops are where you have conversations.’
This is all apparent at London City Island where the mix of retailers and restaurants and community facilities like gyms and a swimming pool all help to create an environment that encourages people who live there to interact. One indication of this is how active the resident’s association is, and Syed sees this as proof of a healthy community. ‘Planners and architects can create the context, but then the community will take over,’ he explains. ‘Voluntary associations like book clubs or sports clubs or a residents’ association speak of who we are. We are inherently social. The tragedy of the old idea of the nuclear family is that it promoted a notion that we should aspire to live in tiny separate units. But we don’t want to do that. To thrive we need an ecosystem.’ A good start is to live somewhere that is literally designed to help make this a reality.
Matthew Syed is a columnist for The Sunday Times and the author of several books of popular philosophy, including Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success, Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practise and Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking. His podcast, Sideways, See The World Differently, is available from BBC Radio 4.
Illustration and animation: Abbey Lossing