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

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Viewing Economies with a Gardenbrain, and Schools as Ecosystems

Alerted by a tweet from The Browser, I discovered an article on how we should view economies not in traditional, simplistic, and mechanistic ways, but rather as complex ecosystems. The authors, Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer, term this framework the “Gardenbrain,” as opposed to the “Machinebrain” that we typically ascribe to economies, such as rationality and efficiency, with the inevitable result that economic fundamentalists view regulations as impediments to the functioning of a meritocratic free market. From the Gardenbrain perspective, Liu and Hanauer suggest the following:

What we require now is a new framework for thinking and talking about the economy, grounded in modern understandings of how things actually work. Economies, as social scientists now understand, aren’t simple, linear and predictable, but complex, nonlinear and ecosystemic. An economy isn’t a machine; it’s a garden. It can be fruitful if well tended, but will be overrun by noxious weeds if not.

Note how parallel their argument is to the argument Will and I first made to introduce Schools as Ecosystems as a framework for looking at schools! Here’s what we said on GothamSchools back in February:

We propose a fundamental shift in the framework and language we use to discuss educational reform. Instead of a framework that views students as products, we propose a framework in which the products of education are viewed as the contexts and content of schools themselves. The schools we produce should be positive and nurturing learning environments where students are engaged in a rich, coherent curriculum. Rather than view our students as widgets, we’d do better to view them as vibrant, dynamic organisms, and view the school, by extension, as an ecosystem. While such a model would make it harder to quantify school quality based on a simple numerical scale, it would enable us to have more productive conversations about systemic education reform, and to take action in targeted ways that will have a sustainable impact.

Later, here on this blog, I also talked about how viewing a school as an ecosystem is another way of recognizing the school as a complex adaptive system. Schools, like economies, are nonlinear and highly unpredictable, and defined primarily by the quality, interdependence, and complexity of their relationships.

Using the framework of the Gardenbrain, Liu and Hanauer then go on to demonstrate how this fundamental shift in mindset can apply to practical considerations for the well-tended regulation of an economy. All of these great suggestions align with a perspective that ecosystems (man-made or curated ones, such as gardens) must be intensively managed, as opposed to left to self-regulate.

Here are the implications for policy from the standpoint of the Gardenbrain — all of which have pertinence to education policy:

  • The necessity for regulation: “Gardenbrain allows us to see that an economy cannot self-correct any more than a garden can self-tend.”
  • The necessity for taxes: “recognize taxes as basic nutrients that sustain the garden. A well-designed tax system — in which everyone contributes and benefits — ensures that nutrients are circulated widely to fertilize and foster growth.”
  • The necessity for spending: “To spend tax dollars on education and health is to circulate nutrients through the garden.