The rise in network thinking

Social_Network_Analysis_VisualizationA nice article here in the Scientific American, on ‘How Networks Are Revolutionizing Scientific (and Maybe Human) Thought’.

“Modern research in sociology, psychology, neuroscience, and anthropology is showing that… what we are like as individuals critically depends on how we are linked socially and emotionally with others, in relational networks reaching far and wide.”

For example, we have historically tended to think of people as being part of races, nationalities, ethnic groups, societies, or cultures. But then network thinking shows us that we are connected to anyone else in the world by only six degrees of separation.

This way of thinking collapses the world immeasurably, and creates many more possibilities than the old worldview.

For example, it influences the way ideas spread. The networks we are part of are partly driven by ethnicity, sexual orientation, and so on, but everybody is linked to everybody else within six degrees of freedom.

This makes complete sense using The Escher Cycle.

In Chapter 8 we drew a chart that shows how ideas (and business advantage) disseminate between businesses and spread through the economy:

Screen shot 2015-02-17 at 13.56.49

We can now redraw this with a focus on people instead of businesses.

On the left side we labelled businesses from ‘high distinctiveness’ (luxury end of the market) to ‘low distinctiveness’ (mass market businesses).

Drawing the same chart for people we might reword this as ‘Leaders’ and ‘Followers’.

Each of these people (leader and follower) is continually receiving information from the people and networks around them. This is shown along the bottom of the box, and again we will change the words.

For businesses this was this AUDIO Cycle, by which they adapt to a changing marketplace, by Understanding what was happening, Designing a response, Implementing that response, and then returning to normal Operations.

In a similar way, people also adapt to changing circumstances. But instead of ‘Understand’ we might now say that they ‘Learn’ [about what is happening around them]. Network theory tells us that this will be influenced by the networks each person is part of, including advertising.

What they do next is decide whether or not to change their behaviour, and in what ways. For corporations we called this ‘Design’ [a new business model]. For people we might simply say they ‘Decide’ to do something new.

They then try out the new behaviour (‘Trial’ for people, ‘Implement’ for corporations). And if they like it, this then becomes the new normal for them — what we call ‘Operations’ for a business and ‘Habit’ for a person.

Using these new words we see that Leaders and Followers are all Learning new information (from their networks), Deciding what to do, Trialling new behaviours, and acquiring new Habits. This is shown as the shaded areas in the diagram below. (Ignore the arrows for the moment.)

Screen shot 2015-02-17 at 13.56.58

The Scientific American article tells us that, as an example, even our bodyweight may be linked not to genetic or simple social contacts, but to the wider networks we are part of.

We can use this diagram to add the four arrows of The Escher Cycle to describe how this might work (simplified):

  1. Network Leaders (including advertisers) push fast food
  2. Depending on what networks they are part of, some Followers decide to try out fast food
  3. If many people eat fast food then there are knock-on impacts, including: convenience, profits, and obesity, as well as wider impacts on farming and the environment
  4. We learn about these impacts over time, and some Leaders then push to reduce obesity while others push to earn more profits and still others campaign for different farming practices. And so on.

At the same time other similar cycles also exist for healthy eating and exercise, gourmet eating, local food, and so on.

So, while researchers in sociology, psychology, neuroscience, and anthropology are finding that networks are important, The Escher Cycle shows us how those networks interact and evolve.


And it goes further, to the genes themselves… The Scientific American article tells us that evolutionary biologists “are now modeling series of complex networked relationships at multiple levels ranging from individual “letters” in the genome to protein-gene networks to interaction networks between organisms, thereby demonstrating that our genes are only our destinies to the extent that they link to each other and to the surrounding world—both social and natural.”

In other words, it is not just our genes that affect us, but the relation of ‘letters’ within the genes, the interactions between proteins and genes, and then between whole organisms. (See also this piece on evolution across species.)

To me this sounds a lot like the interactions between different industries that we saw in Chapter 8.

Screen shot 2015-02-17 at 13.57.12

The nuts and bolts industry provides products and services that help the automotive industry to build and maintain cars, which help people (consumers) get on with their daily lives.

Reinterpreting this for genes, the letters and whole genes affect the physical characteristics of individuals, which then affect the outcomes for populations:

Screen shot 2015-02-17 at 14.22.06

I don’t know enough about evolutionary biology to be able to use the right words to articulate this more precisely. But the similarities seem clear: we are affected by the genes, by the relationship between individual ‘letters’ in the genes, the relationships between genes and proteins, and by the relationships between organisms.

The same fractal properties also apply to the obesity example:

Screen shot 2015-02-17 at 14.22.17

We are a collection of networks. The Escher Cycle help us understand how those networks interact and evolve. Not only for businesses, but also for other aspects of the world.

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