2020 has, at first glance, not been a vintage year for social interaction. Covid-19 thrives on the social contact on which humans depend, so it has had to be throttled. Our economies depend on the gathering of people too, and not just because of the size of the leisure and entertainment sectors. Exchange and transaction in their broadest sense are fundamental to economics. 

Offices and much in the world of work is premised on social interaction too. It’s certainly true that much business travel, routine before February, now feels like a fossilised practice from another era. It’s also the case that offices can be places of interruption and distraction. Yet most accounts of the shift to remote work quickly turn to what people are missing: social interaction and conversations – planned or otherwise. Quick catch ups with colleagues or a snatched conversation have collapsed into scheduled, energy sapping video calls. 

Scheduled calls with people you know have a role – but the refrain from many is the slow decay of freshness. A colleague recently talked of feeling ‘dry’ from an unmixed diet of calls, Meets, Zooms, slacks and cloud-based collaboration. He, like many, feels the need to draw from a different, more flagrant well. 

“You’re (not) on mute”

The relationship between serendipitous encounters, conversation and cultural and economic activity has long been noted. The coffee shops of C17&18th London gave rise to formal markets like Lloyds insurance and the stock exchange. The cafes serving tea of early 20th century Vienna gave succour to the meeting of the great, creative minds of Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt, Gustav Mahler, Anton Bruckner, Sigmund Freud and others. The ‘adda’ of Bengal gave a space to, and shaped the views of, nationalists and other figures of the Bengal cultural renaissance. Tea shops in India are often referred to in the press as charcha ka bazaar – discussion markets – highlighting the role of sweet, hot tea and chat in lubricating the contacts (and contracts) between merchants. Tea shops are sources and super-spreaders of opinions and perspectives across the information networks of towns and cities.**

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Chay ki dukan, Varanasi (Photo: Simon Roberts)

One of the more intriguing economic analyses of the role of social interaction and economic activity is a paper by Michael Andrews,  Bar Talk: Informal Social Interactions, Alcohol Prohibition, and Invention, which demonstrates the impact of prohibition on the production of intellectual capital, namely patents. Andrews explores largest involuntary disruptions of social networks in U.S. history: alcohol prohibition. He describes how saloons, prior to the enactment of prohibition laws

“acted as a social hub in which individuals could exchange. With the passage of prohibition, the state took away these social hubs, disrupting the pre- existing informal social network.”

His data demonstrates that “networks are important for innovation because they facilitate the exposure to new ideas, rather than simply making it easier for individuals to find collaborators”.

The message?

Meeting, talking, interacting and exchanging ideas makes economies – and not just knowledge economies or for knowledge workers – go round. If these sorts of random encounters and exchanges are vital to our economic life, and remote or hybrid work is here to stay, we need to be thinking about changing our diet. 

“Can you see my screen?”

So we might remember 2020 as the year of the empty office, mourn the death of the quick coffee and the year that random, unscheduled conversations ceased.

But we might also celebrate the emergence of new forms of interaction that leapfrog physical constraints of travel, and the limitations of our own networks. New and existing technologies can be put to work to help people make connections. 

2020 has been a good year for finding new ways to meet interesting people (and it has also been a good year to remember the value of keeping old relationships alive). It’s been (yet another) good year to take the opportunity to confront our own informational, filter bubbles – even while maintaining physical ones. 

Coffee roulette

I’ve been participating in a few different things that connect with me with strangers. 

The first sits within an invite only Exponential View slack run by Azeem Azhar, where’s a bot called Random Coffee assigns pairs of people each week.https://www.youtube.com/embed/Wc85wgv3Xcc

I’ve chatted with entrepreneurs, serial technologists, people who’ve been plugging away at fields, or industries or problems about which I know mostly very little. Occasionally I’ve got something useful to share but always something to learn. 

I got this coffee roulette running within our company too – a good way to mix people working in a dedicated client team with people working on different things. Even in a company of only 25 people it seems to work really well. People appreciate being lifted out of their project team to connect with others. 


More globally and more sophisticated is Lunchclub – an “AI-powered” connector of people.

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Getting started on it involves a little more work – writing a short profile and declaring interests and experiences. I’m new to it and my first encounter was only indirectly due to Lunchclub. I was introduced by a friend who had met someone on the platform she thought I would like to chat with – she was right. And I can’t imagine I’d have spent talking with someone living in Kashmir, India, with an impressive career background, forging a new career path without the help of Lunchclub. 

Doubtless many more such sites exist but this one demonstrates a high degree of polish and thoughtfulness in its design and execution. I look forward to more random encounters through it. 

Sliding doors

2020 has been a vintage year for re-thinking social interactions and the role of technology in enabling conversations where there is:

  • No need for one or both parties to schlep across town to meet in a coffee shop
  • No need to rely on someone with bridging capital
  • No imperative for a formal introduction 
  • No guilty feeling that having invested time to arrange, travel and then talk that the meeting ought to have some purpose. 

Instead there are new ways to spend 30 minutes with a stranger with whom one might have lots or very little in common. Someone who might trigger an idea, reawaken a dormant thought. A conversation that reminds you to make an introduction or connection. That person might become a client, a co-conspirator, a collaborator or colleague or give you the germ of an idea you (or they) act on now or return to sometime in the future. 

One feature of all these meetings and interactions is the absence of an agenda and the notable lack of any need to make concrete plans or decide next steps. It’s enough both to enjoy a conversation and to end it by saying as much. In a world where we’re increasingly meeting with a purpose (not always a bad thing) there’s something glorious about idle, open-ended conversation and from our lockdown bunkers, something utterly refreshing about doing that with complete strangers.

Talk is cheap. It also has low to zero marginal cost and not much opportunity cost either. Among the many things that Covid has made visible is the need to keep connecting and creating conversations. 

If this interests you and we don’t know each other, there’s one thing you might do – suggest we meet for thirty minutes. 

/ Simon

** Those who know me will have heard me mention these examples – and others – many taken from a wonderful chapter on the Urban Swirl in anthropologist Ulf Hannerz’s book Cultural Complexity: Studies in the Social Organisation of Meaning. IMHO a masterpiece which gets little of the praise it deserves.