Social capital will get you there faster than a car

Ten years from now, your social capital will be more valuable than the stuff you own or the car you drive.

Social capital will get you there faster than a car This week I had the opportunity to interview Martijn Aslander, a Netherlands-based thought leader and ‘life hacker’.

He is part of a growing movement that believes that in an increasingly digital world, we need to be focusing on social capital rather than monetary capital and working with the principle of asynchronous reciprocity – giving without expecting to receive.

There are various definitions of social capital, but it generally means ‘social relations that have productive benefits’. It is made up of networks of relationships among people. Aslander says the value of social capital is the sum of your network and the readiness of the people in your network to do something for you without wanting something in return.

A flashy car is just a stack of bank notes, and every day it gets smaller. It’s a very bad idea to put money into it.

Social capital can replace money as a form of barter: someone shares their knowledge or skill because you shared something of value with them. It also recognizes that the goodwill that others have towards us is a valuable resource. In short, it’s about being a skilled, generous person.

In his 2002 article, Love is the Killer App, former senior executive at Yahoo, Tim Saunders, argued that the road to prosperity is paved with a commitment to generosity. He wrote: “Learn as much as you can as quickly as you can and share your knowledge aggressively; expand your network of people who share your values and connect as many of them with each other as possible; and, perhaps most important, be as openly human as you can be and find the courage to express genuine emotion in the harried, pressure-filled world of work. And one last point: Behave this way not because you expect something in return — a quid pro quo — but because it’s the right way to behave. The less you expect in return for acts of professional generosity, the more you will receive.”

Knowledge and access are the most valuable commodities

While money is important when it comes to paying our bills, in this global, digital world, the most valuable commodities are knowledge and access. It is about what you know and who you know – in other words your skills and networks.

“A flashy car is just a stack of bank notes, and every day it gets smaller. It’s a very bad idea to put money into it. Books on the other hand grow your mind and your social capital,” says Aslander who adds that the youth in Netherlands are already moving away from materialism as they store most of their lives online. Cars have been traded for Uber, rental is more popular than buying, no-one buys CDs or DVDs anymore as music and entertainment are stored in the cloud. There are even trends to rent branded clothing and accessories for an event rather than to own it.”

This rise of social capital and a move away from material possessions as a status symbol would certainly be a major benefit for the sustainability of earth. The more ‘stuff’ we move into the digital world, like books, the fewer trees we need to cut down.

But this assumes that everyone can access the knowledge economy. Aslander comes from the perspective of a European country where most people have their basic needs covered, like a roof over their heads, food on the table and access to a reasonable level of education. There is also an undersupply of labour, so technology advances reduce the cost of living and give people more leisure time.

In a country like South Africa, the challenges are far greater, especially when we have an oversupply of labour and real poverty. Aslander’s response is that we should be focused on where the world will be in ten years’ time and make sure we are getting ready for it.

Education is clearly valuable in this new world, but Aslander argues that the education taught at schools and university is not necessarily useful and that the ‘fees-must-fall’ campaign was fighting the wrong battle.

“Why do you need money for college when there is better knowledge on the internet than the average school can provide?” asks Aslander. Most universities now offer online degrees, so what a young adult needs is self-discipline rather than student loans.

While self-discipline is free, in South Africa, access to the internet is not, which means the cost of data is even more important than the cost of university. Aslander believes that the rapid uptake of smartphones will help level the playing field between the haves and have-nots. Every hour another 27 000 people join the internet and it is estimated that by 2020, over 5 billion people will have access to a smartphone providing access to more information than the US President had at his disposal 18 years ago.

While we can debate the merits of an increasingly automated, digital world and find short-term interventions to absorb unskilled labour, it is a trend that will continue and possibly a necessity if we are to create a sustainable environment.

If we are to prepare for this world, Aslander argues that we need to continually improve our social capital. “The difference between where you are now and in ten years is the quality of books you read. Keep learning, read books, become smarter, grow your network and be nice.”

Asynchronous reciprocity: a simple example

To take a simplistic version of a network, imagine there are four friends. Mary’s side hobby is dressmaking, Mike’s hobby is photography ‒ he enjoys taking edgy urban images and he is competent at portraits ‒ while Mapi loves decorating cakes. All three would like to build their hobbies into an additional income. The fourth connection is Mampela, who is getting married, and although she has very little money to pay for the wedding, she has an incredible network of people including fashionistas, creatives and parents with young adult children.

How can these four connections use their social capital to help each other? Mike can photograph some of Mary’s designer creations against his edgy urban landscapes and take creative shots for Mapi’s cakes to post on Instagram. In exchange, when Mary gets a commission for a wedding or matric event, she can recommend Mike as the photographer who photographed her collection and Mapi’s cakes, which in turn becomes a lead for Mapi. Mampela can offer access over money – she negotiates a ‘friend’ rate for her dress, photography and wedding cake in exchange for highlighting her friends’ creations on her social media networks.

This article first appeared in City Press.

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