For me, truly understanding increasing returns has been more enlightening than nearly any concept I’ve come across. While the notion that a process, once started, will reinforce itself is known in complexity science, economic geography and economics more broadly as increasing returns, I find myself describing everyday instances of this phenomenon with a more dynamic version of this notion, feedback. Feedback, a portion of a system’s output being reused as an input, is more casual and often describes more neatly an issue I find so fascinating about cities; once a process starts, it will reinforce itself until some future action is taken to break the feedback.

For instance, I was recently at a lecture, and the woman was speaking on local economic development. In her experience (which I believe to be true), there is a small group of very vocal community members who tend to be opposed to growth and change. However, the broader community remains mostly quiet as they are happy with the way things are going. The broader community tend to live in denser, more metro accessible housing and are happy with more urbanism than their more vocal counterparts. Her desire was to incorporate the voices of the broader community that tends to live in the denser housing by reducing barriers. She successfully reduced barriers to voice through e-meetings, message boards, and the like.

By including the residents who live in denser areas, the communities voice becomes re-weighted in favor of growth and development. Local economic developers and planners can then use the re-weighted community voice to argue for additional density and growth. The community’s voice will then become even more weighted toward urbanism and density. The feedback in this system is clear. The output of growth and change are the voices that live in and are in favor of, denser communities. These voices will then be used as an input for additional growth and density.

Systems of feedback are everywhere. The output of great universities teach, engage, and inspire the best students from all over the world who then join and produce for these universities. The players on the best soccer clubs teach, engage, and inspire the best players from all over the world who then join and play for these clubs. The most successful financial firms report profit that inspires and engages talented individuals from all over the world who then apply and produce for these institutions.

While these systems are most apparent in their extreme, they exist in the cities and urban systems all around us. Artist communities produce great art, attracting additional artists. Bar scenes build on their reputation, attracting the crowd looking for the best scene. Great elementary schools attract the most invested families, who voice to further improve schools. Every corner of every city is a system experiencing feedback, one only needs to examine it closely enough to find the mechanism.


Edit: During the early Summer 2019, I picked up the book “Complexity” by M. Mitchell Waldrop. Two things immediately became apparent. First, I should have read this a long time ago. Second, the use of the term feedback in place of increasing returns to scale is not novel. Dr. Arthur made the connection, though in the reverse order, long ago. It is wonderful that I am truly standing on the shoulders of giants even when I’m completely unaware I am doing so.

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