Tricia Wang thinks the future will be hyperlocal

Tricia Wang thinks the future will be hyperlocal
Image: Courtesy Tricia Wang
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It took a global pandemic and stay-at-home orders for 1.5 billion people worldwide, but something is finally occurring to us: The future we thought we expected may not be the one we get.

We know that things will change; how they’ll change is a mystery. To envision a future altered by coronavirus, Quartz asked dozens of experts for their best predictions on how the world will be different in five years.

Below is an answer from Tricia Wang. Her work as the co-founder of consulting firm Sudden Compass is informed her experiences in the tech and nonprofit industries and ethnographic fieldwork done in China, Mexico, and India.

A change model rooted in mutual aid

Evolving into collective action

Where hyperlocality will lead us

Pandemics don’t just impact us—they reveal the strengths and weaknesses of our connections to ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities. For the first half of 2020, we’ve seen two pandemics in the US already: Covid-19 and police brutality, both of which have already led to seismic social shifts.The quarantines that arose in response to the Covid-19 pandemic showed that our connections to those who physically surrounded us were dangerously weak, prompting some people to flee for more comfortable surroundings and others to focus on rebuilding the connections at home. Police brutality against Black Americans emerged as another national emergency, compelling us to take to the streets to demand change. These efforts led to a resurgence of a type of human interaction that had been driven to near-extinction by social and technological shifts: hyperlocal collaboration.

Over the past half year, neighbors have come together over WhatsApp, Slack channels, Facebook groups, and WeChat to help each other survive and thrive. They share ideas for parenting and news about infections. They share information on hard-to-find goods and Covid-19 testing locations. When neighbors need assistance, other neighbors deliver aid, and in the process strengthen ties that show why hyperlocal connections matter.

Why haven’t we always been hyperlocal? Why now? Globalization forced us into dependency on hyperglobal supply chains. It became cheaper to buy products from large conglomerates that contracted with factories on the other side of the globe than it was to buy them from local makers and vendors. Why go to the shop around the corner when Amazon offers the same goods for less money, and will deliver them directly to our doorsteps, confirmed through Ring video doorbells?

This arrangement bypasses local economies and minimizes the connections with the people, businesses, and organizations around us. And for all the talk of the digital workplace, up until the quarantine, work travel was the norm, leading people to spend just as much time in cars, on planes, and at offices than at their homes. All of this forced us to live in closer proximity to strangers instead of creating shared communities with neighbors.

As Covid-19 swept across the US like a slowly rolling storm, governments were also slow to respond. When political leaders shirked their responsibility to keep us safe by refusing to offer even the simplest of guidelines for things like mask-wearing, local groups had to find new sources of trust and leadership. And it turns out, we ourselves are those sources.

Hyperlocal groups come in a huge variety of sizes, leadership styles, and goal-orientations, but they all share one crucial trait: they exist to create value and return value back to their local communities. Some collaborate to access resources together, such as group purchases of groceries to limit individual exposure to health risks. Others help each other verify local news, find the closest testing centers, or discuss issues that affect everyone living in the immediate vicinity. Foci may vary, but the overarching goal is always to ensure that the neighborhood is safe and supported.

Diverse missions and tactics can be seen in the hyperlocal groups that have emerged all over the world. During the quarantine in Wuhan, China, entire buildings and city blocks came together to form large chat groups that pooled resources and shared information. In Europe, thousands of mutual aid groups sprung up in places impacted by Covid19 like Italy, the UK, and Spain to purchase groceries, provide care, and share skills.

In my own neighborhood, Brooklyn, I see efforts in different directions. Bed-Stuy Strong organizes on Slack to purchase food for those in greatest need. Last Mile #NYCPPE, a group I cultivated, provides personal protective equipment for healthcare workers. I also see hyperlocal efforts that existed before the Covid-19 era quickly increase their impact. Black-owned restaurants like Grandchamps are using their supplier connections to offer much-needed groceries. They collaborate with other restaurants on meal-donation fundraisers for families in need. When their staff started expressing concerns about possible police violence when walking home after a shift, neighbors began volunteering to escort them home.

As someone who has participated in and helped grow hyperlocal groups — and who has also been studying the ways that people form ad hoc support networks around the world — I’ve identified what I think are the defining factors for early stage hyperlocal groups:

The vast majority of work is volunteer-based.

Activity is tied to a particular geographic place.

Members have a personal connection to the group’s locale.

Members have a variety of professional and educational backgrounds (meaning they aren’t all doctors, or from the same company or same high school or family).

Efforts are typically focused on helping each other out during a crisis.

Group problem-solving is utilized as often as possible.

Agreed-upon solutions need to work for as many members of the community as possible.

Behaviors are mostly motivated by the desire for care and safety, not profit.

There is a commitment to continuously making communities safer.

Hyperlocal groups have simple logistical advantages over large bodies of governance. First, they are small and agile. Unlike committee-ridden, centralized organizations, their structures are tight and optimized for quick decision-making, which enables them to move fast. Second, the members are emotionally or operationally invested in the outcomes. There is a sense that we are all “in this together,” which gives them a personal stake in the survival of the locality as a whole. But perhaps the most significant factor in hyperlocal groups’ efficacy is that they can identify needs faster than traditional governments. They don’t learn about needs through a report, a town-hall discussion, or a dashboard. Instead, they hear directly from their neighbors. And members can see the immediate effects of their efforts, whether they work or not.

New hyperlocal movements won’t just be about people helping each other. Even now, groups seem to be joining forces, transforming their energy into collective action pushing for widespread systems change. These are efforts that boomerang, starting locally and bounding nationally to create local results. For example, local reactions to police brutality moved globally through online tools and then intensified back in particular places on specific efforts for community control.

There is historical precedent for hyperlocal groups evolving into national organizing power and making lasting local changes. National trade unions were all created in response to local instances of workplace abuse. The Stonewall Riots in New York City catalyzed the national gay rights movements that built the foundation of modern LBGTQIA organizing. Septima Clark’s and Dorothy Cotton’s work in architecting Citizenship Schools created more than 1,000 grassroots literacy programs, establishing the foundations of the Civil Rights Movements.

We have modern examples also. The Participatory Budgeting Movement, in which communities take control of how a portion of local money is spent, has grown out of hyperlocal efforts in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and Chicago’s 49th ward.

A noteworthy example is the phenomenon of migrant networks called Hometown Associations (HTAs) that have impacted policies from federal educational statutes to local safety measures for immigrants, many of whom are undocumented. HTAs helps immigrants safely maintain ties between their hometowns in rural Mexico and their places of residence in the USA. The seeds of modern HTAs grew out of mutual aid networks in the 19th century. And now they’re inspiring people to create their version of HTA for rural towns in the US. Modeled after HTA, Hometown Connect, is a network of current and ex-residents in southern Illinois committed to local economies and civic engagement.

These examples prove that hyperlocal groups can grow to have outsized influence on policy, culture, and daily life. They even have the potential to revitalize democracy at large in America. Some of this revitalization is already in process, much of it spurred by Black Lives Matter. For example in New York City, years after BLM first launched, organizers all around the country are successfully calling for changes at a local level. In New York, organizers are pressing for social change in concrete ways with a list called “The Blueprint,” a list of changes that need to happen on a policy and practice level in New York State. Chinova Newsom, co-founder of Black Lives Matters Greater NYC, is running for congress in 2020. Other BLM Greater NYC members like Glenn Contave have been working for several years to remove racist statues throughout New York City. His work is an example of how hyperlocal organizing will change racist architecture and public spaces that don’t reflect the community’s values. Other organizations with hyperlocal roots will undoubtedly follow suit, growing into their full power as members grasp the importance of championing widespread democratic change. They bring democracy down to the smallest unit of interaction in society, making federal, state, and city policies more tangible and malleable.

While we have the opportunity to continue on the path of collective action, it’s worth noting that hyperlocal groups are not, by default, inclusive. The Ku Klux Klan started out locally. Local groups enforced racial segregation through Jim Crow laws up until the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. Place-based groups can espouse white supremacy as easily as they can espouse racial justice. They can promote sexism as easily as they can promote gender equality.

One way to avoid parochialism is to learn from modern Hometown Associations (HTA) who practice what researcher, Antonieta Mercado, calls “grassroots cosmopolitanism,” an organizing practice that is bottom-up yet highly intersectional: It embraces differences as a key feature of the participants all the while maintaining allegiance to the group’s mission. She sees this practice in the indigenously run HTA groups of Oaxacan immigrants in southern California and in protests against police brutality. The lesson is that hyperlocal groups can be local without being parochial and while they may not be physically global, they can still be cosmopolitan, such as practicing the values of inclusion.

I believe we are living at a turning point in the history of community, where we can become more hyperlocal than hyperglobal. Covid-19 and police brutality have provided us the necessity of refocusing our energy on the people, groups, and resources immediately around us. Emerging hyperlocal groups are driving social change on multiple fronts. Mutual aid groups, residential building- and neighborhood-based groups, and social justice organizations that have emerged out of the converging health and race crises look strong enough to outlive the pandemic itself, generating new forms of civic engagement that happen on each community’s own terms.

With diminishing trust in decades-old institutions, hyperlocal groups can become the primary stabilizing force in both urban and rural settings, stepping in to address the shortcomings of our increasingly broken infrastructures. We will no longer rely on governments or markets alone to take care of us. Instead we will rely on ground-up, hyperlocal neighborhood networks to get stuff done in times of crisis.

We will rely on each other. We tend to think of meaningful impact as needing to take place at a massive scale, across populations and nations. But we need to think about change starting out as hyperlocal, scaled down to the speed of intimacy. That’s where it will take root. That’s where it will stay alive even in the face of structural injustices. And most importantly, that’s where it will thrive.

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