Kaufman Management Center
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Social progress depends greatly on a society’s ability to adapt its rules to changing circumstances. Rules include both formal laws but also informal social norms. Norms are socially determined notions about the right and wrong ways of doing things. For progress to be sustained, a society’s norms must evolve over time.
For example, successful shifts from hunter-gatherer societies to sedentary agriculture required an adjustment in norms about food sharing. In hunter-gatherer bands, where it was less clear when the next meal would arrive and in what quantity, social norms mitigated risk by encouraging the sharing of game with the group—regardless of whether someone had assisted in the kill. With the advent of sedentary agriculture, a social norm that permitted people to keep most of their their surplus harvest encouraged individual initiative and generated considerably more food in successful agrarian societies.
Though the evolution of social norms is central to social progress, norms tend to persist because they are socially determined. Once a group establishes a norm, the norm tends to reinforce itself as people observe one another behaving according to the norm—even incurring a cost to punish one another for straying from it. Romer argues that a key obstacle to social progress is the persistence of inefficient norms. Think, for example, about the persistence of norms that prescribe narrow roles for women in societies that otherwise aspire to develop dynamic, modern economies.
Romer believes that civic startups are a key mechanism by which people can shift away from persistently inefficient social norms. When dissidents can experiment with new ways of doing things in startups, new ways of life can emerge and, if demonstrably successful, spread to societies that would otherwise prove resistance to change. Thinking at the city-scale, Romer cites the examples of William Penn’s efforts in Philadelphia—a city that brought religious tolerance to the American colonies—and Deng Xiaoping’s efforts in Shenzhen—a city that brought market-based economic principles to communist China.