Alumnus, Deryc T. Painter, Explores Implications for Social Interactions During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Photo of Deryc Painter

The world looks very different today than it did two years ago. Stay-at-home orders, face masks, and social distancing are now part of everyday life. Biology and Society alum Deryc T. Painter recently focused his attention on face-to-face interactions, rates of innovation, and economic efficiency before pandemic, and found important implications for a less social world. Deryc T. Painter received his PhD on August 13th, 2019 with his dissertation, “Computational Interdisciplinarity: A Study in the History of Science.” He since published on network applications for history of science and created an algorithm to identify and classify simultaneous innovations at scale among other things. His latest research published in the journal Urban Science uncovered a positive effect between the number of face-to-face interactions in the workforce and (1) rates of innovation produced by a city, and (2) gross domestic product (GDP) per industry worker.

Now an Assistant Research Professor in the new School of Complex Adaptive Systems, Deryc T. Painter, in collaboration with fellow ASU faculty members Shade T. Shutters and Elizabeth Wentz, uncovered correlations between the number of face-to-face interactions required in different occupations, the rate of innovation production within a city, and the GDP per worker of an industry. The trio deconstructed U.S. occupations into individual work activities (IWAs) using data provided by the O*NET online database and categorized them as social if they require face-to-face interactions among employees or customers.  By aggregating the labor forces of U.S. metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) into a metric of urban social “interactiveness,” the group used a novel measurement of urbanized area that Elizabeth Wentz developed to calculate the density of social work activities for each MSA. Painter et al. found urban socialness is positively correlated with a city’s per worker 5-year patent production.

Left: Power-law relationship between GDP and socialness. Both axes are logarithmic. Each dot represents an individual industry (N=102.) The scaling exponent, ß, indicates as social work activities increase, GDP increases superlinearly.

Right: Type and duration of COVID-19 state and territorial stay-at-home orders, by jurisdiction—United States, March 1st—May 31st, 2020. First printed in Moreland et al. 2020.

When U.S. industries analyzed social work activities, the research team found that industry social interactiveness positively scales with an industry’s per worker GDP, shown in Left figure. These results suggest social interaction among workers is an important factor of a city’s rate of invention (a proxy for innovation) and an industry’s economic efficiency. Plainly, a more social city or industry tends to be a more innovative city or efficient industry. This raises interesting implications vis-à-vis the isolation of individuals in the COVID-19 pandemic.

The CDC reports the U.S. began implementing public health policies to slow the spread of COVID-19 as early as March 2020. Stay-at-home orders, facemasks, and remote work slow the spread of the virus by limiting contact outside one’s immediate family or “pandemic pod.” These public health policies lower the number of social interactions a person might encounter. Many businesses, such as bars, restaurants, and movie theatres since reopened with limited capacity further depressing the number of social interactions between customers and employees. Research supports that social distancing works to slow the spread of the virus and save lives in the process. Undoubtedly, saving lives takes priority. What does this mean for cities and industry as a whole?

As policy makers and industry leaders reimagine what our world will be as vaccine rollouts begin, an understanding of the role social interactions play on the ability for a city to innovate and industry to efficiently operate offers a path to data informed policy post-pandemic and beyond. The research from Painter et al. suggests finding ways to socialize safely, if the goal is for cities to innovate and industries to profit. Many already look to Zoom and other video conferencing software to supplement starved social interactions. However, research suggests this merely makes the best of a bad situation with many experiencing “Zoom burnout.” It seems that video conferencing is useful, but no substitute for the real thing.

Painter et al. provides quantitative support for future policies to restore social interactions safely. How this will work is yet to be seen. More research is needed to explore how face-to-face interactions are affected when all faces involved are covered by masks and/or at least six feet apart.  The next step for this research project is to turn the same analytic techniques towards other countries. Painter et al. is already in the process of analyzing data for Germany, and they are actively inviting collaborations in South America, Eastern Europe, India, Asia, and beyond.

Author: Deryc T. Painter