Networks and Cities in a Post-COVID Era


Not long ago, Tom Delonge, one of the founders of the punk-rock band Blink 182 and founder/front man for the alternative band Angels and Airwaves, decided to put together an interesting public benefit corporation based in California. It just so happens to be a company that conducts research on UFOs. But what’s interesting here is how Delonge’s To The Stars Academy (TTSA) have been able to promote this subject, not just on obscure websites or the Joe Rogan podcast, but through other more surprising channels. Delonge’s company seems to have contributed in some ways to the Navy’s acknowledgement of such phenomena. TTSA also produced a series on the History Channel called “Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation,” set to premiere for a second season on July 11, 2020. And almost incredibly, Delonge’s company signed a contract with none other than the U.S. Army in the fall of 2019.

How is this possible? Simple. It’s about networks. Consider Delonge’s team. Team members’ bios include established names from Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works, the Department of Defense, the CIA, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and...the band Blink 182? Networks, often galvanized by the networking activities of a key catalyst, can make things happen in ways that no individual could imagine doing alone.

Networks shape things. They impact continents. They foster movements. They create change, even cultural change. Yet unlike institutions, they tend to have a short shelf-life. Nonetheless, there is no doubt they wield great power, influence, and disruption...much more so than any person left to his or her own resources could accomplish without the help of others. When networks consist of people with access, much can happen. Author Michael Lindsay writes, “Networks of senior leaders are constituted in the same way as are networks of ordinary people. What differentiates the points in these networks, however, is their access to leading institutions. The people who populate elite networks are working for major government bodies, large corporations, and prestigious cultural institutions.”1

Networks do AT LEAST three things, really well. And these three things are related.

  1. Networks provide a way for otherwise disconnected influencers and leaders to develop and maintain strong connections. These connections can, and often do, affect change. New ideas, new products, and new services all can emerge from these connections.
  2. Networks introduce and facilitate “weak ties” and thus create more opportunities, including job opportunities, for participants. Thanks to the work of Stanford’s Mark Granovetter in the early 1970s, it is widely recognized that weak ties, instead of close familial ties or friendships, help people find employment. Yes, the old adage “it’s who you know” still applies, but it may not be your best friend to introduce you to your next employer.
  3. Networks solve problems. Institutions are essentially networks that have come together around a shared vision in a more formal way to solve a particular problem, or group of problems. The institution will likely outlast the network. But the network, sometimes from multiple disciplines, can more quickly address complex or systemic problems in ways that a single leader simply cannot.

The fact that networks do all types of amazing things is not new news. There is no shortage of literature on what they do, how they function, and why they are important. Consider Duncan Watts and his Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age. Or the physicist Mark Newman at the University of Michigan and his study of networks in complexity science (Newman is an external faculty member at the Santa Fe Institute). And of course, there’s Niall Ferguson’s The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook and James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World. A Professor of Religion, Culture and Social Theory at the University of Virginia, his argument is that cultural change, historically speaking, is more about networks than heroic individuals, and happens — his words — “rarely without a fight.” He writes:

"The impetus, energy, and direction for world-making and world-changing are greatest where various forms of cultural, social, economic, and often political resources overlap. In short, when networks of elites in overlapping fields of culture and overlapping spheres of social life come together with their varied resources and act in common purpose, cultures do change and change profoundly. Persistence over time is essential; little of significance happens in three to five years. But when cultural and symbolic capital overlap with social capital and economic capital and....these resources are directed toward shared ends, the world, indeed, changes."2

The big question today is...will or will they not be forged in the same way they have come together in the past. As it stands, there are so many other ways for people to bump into each other, make decisions together, execute on shared ideas and interests, and collaborate across disciplines and industries. Does place still matter (not asking from a philosophical or religious standpoint — that may be a different subject) when it comes to network formation? It probably depends.

In the past, many have recognized that cities — big, global cities that have an enormous influence on economies throughout the world — have provided the best ecosystem for influential networks to thrive. Large cities facilitate knowledge spillover in ways that smaller cities and towns simply cannot and do not. Historically speaking, especially in the 20th century, large cities were the greenhouse for all sorts of innovative products and services to be conceived of and grown. Big cities attract talent. The more talented people a city has, constantly running into one another, whether by chance or by intentionality, the more disruption, the more innovation, the more connections people make, the greater their weak ties expand. The Santa Fe Institute’s Cities, Scaling, and Sustainability project, through the efforts of Dr. Geoffrey West and Dr. Luis Bettencourt (and others), which focuses not on density but size of metro areas, has contributed a great deal to the conversation around cities over the past decade.

But in a post-Covid world, will cities — especially global cities — continue to dominate the world’s socio-economic landscape in the years to come? Will urban space maintain its current function? Will networks, so often incubated in large cities, form the same way as they have in the past? These are great questions, given our current reality. After all, in a knowledge economy, technology has radically changed the way we work and communicate. It has changed the way we network. ZOOM, Google Connect, Microsoft Teams...despite glitches and privacy concerns… have made communication so much easier, so much more accessible, so much more efficient, and — during our current pandemic — in fact, the go-to preferred means of communication. This is ubiquitous regardless of industry and sector — private, public, and social. Of course, there are some very real challenges that accompany the almost non-stop reliance on video calls and conferencing. Video calls can be draining, and other forms of emotional and psychological problems, like “Zoom fatigue,” can set in if ZOOM becomes the ultimate thing.

At the same time, the way networks are formed and the way they operate are shifting and will continue to morph over time, especially as necessity and tech innovation collide.
Earlier this spring, I participated in two video calls with small business owners from my own network. Many of the participants had never met others on the call. Some people came from creative design fields, while others came from more traditional industries. The purpose of the calls was to help one another solve problems in the midst of coronavirus lockdown and make connections for shared learning, regardless of the industry. This virtual “gathering” happened with participants from a number of metro areas -- Austin, Dallas, Louisville, Atlanta, and Chicago.

In this case, there was no physical space needed for the network to work. Necessity is the mother of invention. With remote work growing at a faster clip than anyone could have imagined, companies are now deploying teams without brick and mortar, while people leave large urban centers for surrounding cities, suburbs, and less populated areas.
Networks already function quite well without the need for actual urban space. This should encourage entrepreneurial minds, as well as workers in more traditional institutions, to consider creative ways to allow networks to do what they do so well — connect the disconnected, establish weak ties, and generate solutions. Of course, this can — and should! — happen right in your own community, whether geographic or based on common interest.


  1. Lindsay, D. Michael, View from the Top, Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2014, 6.
  2. Hunter, James Davison, To Change the World, New York: Oxford, 2010, 43.

Travis Vaughn has coached non-profit and private sector leaders since 2012 and serves as Executive Director for a 501c3 non-profit in Atlanta.

Illustration credit: Gordon Johnson via Pixabay