The R number for ideas: How new concepts take hold

A crucial factor in the development of any region is creating or increasing social energy. This energy is generated by people exchanging ideas, thoughts and emotions. Using the canton of Schaffhausen as an example, a GDI study shows how regions can benefit from a location in between the countryside and a major city.

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This text is based on an excerpt from the study "Schaffhausen 2030” that can be downloaded from our website. 

More frequent, longer and more intensive interactions between people increase the social energy – and thereby the attractiveness – of a region. However, in 2020, this very fact seemed more like part of the problem than part of the solution: more interaction meant more infection, and suddenly an advantageous location became a health risk. Figuratively speaking, however, ‘contagious’ interaction is precisely the goal of any regional development programme that aims to generate social energy.

In this context, one particular factor plays an important role – a concept that was previously familiar only to epidemiologists, but became a widespread term during the COVID-19 pandemic: the R number. ‘R’ stands for ‘reproduction’, and the R number indicates the average number of people an infected person will pass the infection on to. If the R number is greater than one, each infected person will transmit the disease to at least one other person – and the virus will spread. If the number is less than one, fewer and fewer people will become infected and the number of overall infections will drop. In the context of regional development, an R number can be calculated for the virality of human interactions: how ‘contagious’ – or how attractive – is the exchange between people in a given location? When it comes to this R number, the higher the better: it’s not a matter of spreading a disease, but spreading ideas.

In the book The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread – and Why They Stop, the epidemiologist Adam Kucharski names four parameters that describe the contagion potential of a virus. They form the acronym DOTS:

  • Duration: the longer an infected person communicates with other people, the more time they have to infect them.
  • Opportunity: how many people does an infected person come into contact with, enabling the virus to pass from one person to the next?
  • Transmission probability: how likely is it that the virus will actually be transmitted from one person to another when two people meet?
  • Susceptibility: given the duration, opportunity and transmission probability, how likely is it that someone will contract the virus and become ill with it?

These points can be applied to the emergence and spread of social energy, too:

  • Duration: the longer we are exposed to something new, the more arguments reach us and the more aspects of it we understand and accept. It is also true that the more outlandish and visionary something is, the longer it takes to gain wider acceptance.
  • Opportunity: the right opportunities and framework are needed to cultivate a fertile ground for new ideas and experiences. As a general rule, these opportunities normally occur in places and situations that are not primarily focussed on efficiency, management and administration, but on creativity, learning and informality.
  • Transmission probability: the likelihood that something new will spread depends heavily on how attractive it is. The stronger an idea is, the more persistent it is. The trade-off between the risks and the expected benefits also plays a role.
  • Susceptibility: the more open-minded people are, the more receptive they will be to new things. Of course, this varies greatly from person to person; some people are very open, while some are very stuck in their ways.

In addition, the atmosphere in which an exchange takes place also plays a role in determining how receptive people will be. This atmosphere, in turn, is influenced by the character of the region: how open-minded does it claim to be, and how open-minded is it really?

In a pandemic, the risk of infection and thus the R number wants to be as low as possible. In regional development, on the other hand, we aim for R numbers far above one. To achieve this, new concepts need to confront as many different people and viewpoints as possible – fresh ideas need to find a receptive audience.

This process is finite: as soon as enough people have been ‘infected’ with a new idea, it is no longer new – the spread decelerates or stops. But it can start all over again with the next innovation. To generate social energy, therefore, what we need is not simply people who are receptive to a specific innovation, but people who are receptive generally. And for this to happen, you need a certain level of dynamism among ideas, people and spaces.

These three elements need to be in balance: new ideas and a receptive audience without available spaces are just as unproductive as receptive people and available spaces without new ideas. The examples below use two of Europe’s major metropolises to demonstrate how this kind of imbalance prevents social energy from being transformed into real economic performance:

  • In early 21st-century Berlin, then-mayor Klaus Wowereit’s statement that Berlin was ‘poor but sexy’ made the city sound very cool, but it also highlighted its greatest deficiency: it lacked (and largely still lacks) mechanisms to make ideas productive. Receptive people and available spaces – both of which Berlin has in abundance – make for an enjoyable city, but aren’t necessarily reflected in economic performance.
  • At the same time, London had a large number of creative people, and many highly productive companies in creative industries such as advertising, media and consulting. Every new idea had the potential to bear fruit. What was lacking, however, were available spaces where new ideas could have developed: overheated real estate prices had largely dried up any fertile ground that might have fostered new subcultures. London had simply become too expensive for emerging creatives who had yet to find their audience.

The GDI study concludes that the canton of Schaffhausen can benefit from its position in between the countryside and a major city. Because it offers mobility and stability at the same time, it provides roots while also offering people the opportunity to spread their wings. This combination of seemingly opposing worlds can in fact be highly productive if it succeeds in taking advantage of this tension and the resulting dynamism.