Bigger or more dynamic doesn’t mean more resilient

Consider two settlements. The first one is a small metropolitan area of Barnstable town. The second is Rochester, a large area with rapidly growing economy. Which of the two, you think, would be more resilient? That may sound unnatural to those obsessed with growth but the answer is the area of Barnstable.

Various resilience rankings of the U.S. regions reveal lots of such surprising observations. Apparently, slower growing cities and regions have more capacity to withstand shocks compared to more dynamically developing areas. Why? For a number of reasons. First, these areas tend to be stable, as well as much more affordable. Next, the rates of home ownership are higher, and the situation with income equality is better. Third, their communities are much stronger since there are residents who live there for a long time and, hence, have formed more interconnections. Finally, it is common that these areas have greater diversification of business climate.

Thus, a slowly growing area would be likely more resilient compared to one experiencing fast advancement. The thing is that a system that rapidly develops one of its components may do that at the expense of its other parts or at the cost of future imbalances. The consequences of such development are not always known, and they are often delayed in time. Take the government as an example, where each agency works on separate issues (land, air, water, economy, finance, technology, health etc.), as if these issues are not interrelated. As a result, one agency strives to achieve a tremendous growth while the other struggles to clean up the mess the first agency creates. The outcomes are often inefficient, expensive and sometimes harmful.

I would attribute this phenomenon to Jay W. Forrester’s counterintuitive social systems. Forrester was one of the first who studied this in a systematic manner. In his line of works in 1960-1970s he showed how systems modeling helped understand the failures in corporate management, government, policymaking, and economics. An important concept he and other systems scientists used was feedback loops, adopted from engineering. Feedback loop can be imagined as a chain of causal connections.  Forrester believed that virtually all decisions were happening in the context of feedback loops. Operating in such a complex system as society, one couldn’t avoid getting into creation of unanticipated and delayed effects. Any attempt to balance the system might eventually cause a severe disbalance to the system. Indeed this was also observed by philosophers and writers of the past. For instance, Machiavelli wrote:

… when a problem arises either from within a republic or outside it, one brought about either by internal or external reasons, one that has become so great that it begins to make everyone afraid, the safest policy is to delay dealing with it rather than trying to do away with it, because those who try to do away with it almost always increase its strength and accelerate the harm which they feared might come from it.

Charles Marohn in his book “Strong Towns: a Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity” notes how big investments in infrastructure in the past have increased burden to the towns in the present. Those who invested in infrastructure in the period of abundance didn’t consider that the situation might change in the future, and it wouldn’t be anymore possible to afford the costs of maintenance. Earlier in history, the pace of growth was connected to affordability of the changes, and with option in mind of bouncing back in case something went wrong. Now we live accumulating the debt, as if we were as careless as Louis XV of France in his words après nous le déluge (after us the deluge).

In complex systems cause and effect are often distant from each other both in time and space, and it is quite difficult to figure out the consequences of a delayed response. That is why smaller and less dynamic areas tend to be more resilient. They are foreseeable, stable, and are more prepared for sudden shocks.

References

  • Forrester, J. (1971). Fundamentals of Cybernetics of the Enterprise (Industrial Dynamics). J. Forrester.–M.: Progress.
  • Marohn Jr, C. L. (2019). Strong Towns: A Bottom-up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Ranking the ‘resilience’ of hundreds of U.S. cities. How well will metros manage shocks, such as earthquakes and economic meltdowns? URL: https://www.zdnet.com/article/ranking-the-resilience-of-hundreds-of-us-cities/