Economies as Ecosystems

“Both political camps accept a version of the elegant premise of economic equilibrium, which inclines them to a deterministic, linear way of thinking. But why not look at the economy in terms of the messy complexity of natural systems, such as the fractal growth of living organisms or the frantic jive of atoms? These frameworks are bigger than the sum of their parts, in that you can’t predict the behaviour of the whole by studying the step-by-step movement of each individual bit.”

—George Zarkadakis, “The economy is more a messy, fractal living thing than a machine

The Hive Mind

“The United Arab Emirates and Qatar, for instance, are two of just a handful of nations where migration policy substantially raises national average test scores. That’s a brave thing to do, and it’s a way to shape a more prosperous future. High human capital immigration policies, the kind embraced by Hong Kong and Singapore, tend to make a nation’s economic future brighter. These nations are choosing some of their future citizens, and they’re very likely building a stronger hive mind.”

Having smart neighbors could mean a higher income for you – Quartz

On Failure, Uncertainty, and Risk

I came across this really interesting video shortly after writing about the concept of “explosive networks.” In this overview of his book, Greg Ip provides a comprehensive explanation of how efforts to increase safety and stability can often end up resulting in greater catastrophe (including the efforts in fire prevention). I think his ideas pair well with our broader conversations about the relationship between complex systems and chaos.

Ip asks an interesting question: How can we allow danger to make us safe?

He provides the example of the aviation industry, and how it is now far safer to fly than it is to drive in a car, thanks to the great pressure and transparency generated by any disasters that have occurred. He also frames this in terms of the economy, acknowledging that risk-taking is ultimately what increases wealth.

In the world of education, there has recently been much talk on the importance of failure in learning, and it’s interesting how this parallels broader discussions about complexity and uncertainty within other sectors. For example, if you really want to geek out, you can watch video of the panel of Tyler Cowen, Jared Bernstein and Alex Pollock debating economic principles — what I found interesting was how all of the panelists implicitly concurred on the point that human beings suffer from psychological limitations, which results in greater uncertainty and unpredictability. We have frequently examined this topic here under the banner of “cognitive bias.”

Much of the work that we do in my school’s Support Services department (we’ve decided to rebrand the term “special education) is to try and shift student perceptions of themselves. Often the greatest barrier to student learning is not disability, nor even the content and tasks demanded by rigorous academic subjects, but rather a student’s belief that they are either unable to do the work, or that asking the necessary questions to clarify their understanding is simply not worth the “risk” of appearing “stupid.”

To bring the classroom side of things back to Greg Ip’s question: How can we allow danger to make us safe? I think in a school, we can never completely remove the psychological “dangers” of peer and self-perceptions when challenged by difficult and complex academic content and tasks. The question in a school is not how can we make content easier or ignore the reality that failing in front of others is inherently risky, but rather how can we increase students’ willingness to take the risks necessary for learning? And as Ip suggests about the aviation industry, maybe being transparent about the smaller failures and misconceptions that inevitably do occur along the way can be of greater benefit in the long-run, and prevent much greater disasters from occurring father down the line.



Your Neighborhood Matters

By Alexander de Cadenet (Alexander de Cadenet) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the central tenets of this blog is that place (and context) matters. We examine this tenet specifically as it pertains to schools, and it’s why we propose viewing schools as forms of ecosystems. Physical environment, colors, natural light, exposure to fresh air, the content that is taught, how it is taught, who it is taught by, the leadership in the building, the social relationships between students and staff — all of this adds up to a dynamic socio-ecological construct that goes far beyond what we currently purport to measure.

So it’s nice to see some further economic research to back this socio-ecological perspective up. Economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren have generated a report that demonstrates the fundamental importance of where one grows up on long-term outcomes. As Justin Wolfers points out in his analysis:

Their findings are clear: The earlier a family moved to a good neighborhood, the better the children’s long-run outcomes. The effects are symmetric, too, with each extra year in a worse neighborhood leading to worse long-run outcomes. Most important, they find that each extra year of childhood exposure yields roughly the same change in longer-run outcomes, but that beyond age 23, further exposure has no effect. That is, what matters is not just the quality of your neighborhood, but also the number of childhood years that you are exposed to it.

The implications are clear: education alone will not raise social mobility — we need to foster and transform entire neighborhoods. Much harder work, perhaps—but if we’re honest about tackling poverty and raising opportunity and providing equity for all, then it’s the real work.