Blogathon 2009 – Book Review: The Nature of Economies, Jane Jacobs

Blogathon 2009 Vancouver for Vancouver Public Space NetworkThis blog post is part of Blogathon 2009, in which I am blogging for 24 hours straight in order to raise money for the Vancouver Public Space Network, an entirely volunteer-run organization who do advocacy and education on the public realm in my home of Vancouver, British Columbia. Please consider supporting by sponsoring me with a pledge, leaving a comment or contacting me to contribute a guest post.

One of the reasons behind me doing this Blogathon was for me to get a little more comfortable rapidly reflecting on what I read, since I’m going to be starting a master’s program in the fall. I also decided to get myself in the right frame of mind by bringing two books along with me on my recent trip to New York, Montreal and Toronto. The Nature of Economies by Jane Jacobs is one of them; I’ll be posting a review of the other later today.

This book was brought to my attention initially quite some time ago. I’m not entirely sure what my reasoning is for picking up this book instead of her much more well-known work, The Death and Life of American Cities, first. Perhaps it was the very unintimidating size: the book is 190 pages, the last 20 of which are notes and indices, and I was looking for vacation reading. Or the fact that I’ve heard multiple synopses of the more popular one already.

Whatever the case, the book is somewhat unusual. It brings together a number of fairly abstract ideas from development and sketches out similarities between biological and economic development. But she does so using a series of conversations and dialogues. The book reads as a third-person fictional account of essentially several mealtime conversations between people representing different perspectives. As I pointed out when I passed it on to Sacha for a glimpse, it means the book is longer than if she was just talking about the ideas, but it also lends an emotional dimension to why it might be very important that some concepts and theories remain entirely disconnected.

The first couple of sections talk about the nature of development, and spells out four principles that encapsulate all of biological, economic and technological development. Unfortunately, the principles as stated don’t mean much separated from examples, but I’ll note them here anyway:

  1. Differentiations emerge from generalities.
  2. Differentiations become generalities from which further differentiations emerge. (Multiplied generalities are source of multiplied differentiations.)
  3. Development depends on co-developments. Habitats operate as a web of interdependent co-developments.

I’m particularly enamoured of the co-development concept currently, as I previously had an instinct about it and it’s interesting to hear it confirmed. My hunch came about when I was helping organize Vancouver ChangeCamp, and I was hearing some people express very strong enthusiasm about the things they personally want to see come out of ChangeCamp. This person even went so far to say that if others didn’t want to work on what he was working on as much, that he would prefer to go start another event. I think this can be a fairly common response: we want to work with people who are in pursuit of common goals, right? We don’t want to waste our energy trying to convince someone of something when time’s a-wasting and we know what we want.

But co-development says that the development of things is not a linear stream. The example Jacobs gives is of horses. We talk about evolution as if we started with the predecessors of horses, then we got horses, and then we got different kinds of horses with different hooves and specializations. But it’s not linear that way, she argues – the existence of horses pre-supposed the existence of grass, water, a certain temperature…which means these things are interacting as an ecosystem all the time.

Going back to ChangeCamp, what I think that says, is that it’s important for us to be aware of how the nature of several movements complement each other, and to include goals that seem disparate, because it may very well be that they are all necessary to get the right mix of people, technologies, tools and ideas to create the thing we have in mind.

The other concept I resonated quite strongly with was that of how complex systems evade collapse. There were four principles mentioned:

  1. bifurcations
  2. positive feedback loops
  3. negative feedback loops
  4. emergency adaptation

I’d like to think I’m concentrating on the positive feedback loops in place…mostly because I’m not well-placed to be helping with bifurcations (just yet; the Master’s may change this), and have not the policy background or the science chops to be working on either of the latter two. I’m also open to the idea that my positioning to be contributing to these measures may wax and wane according to my age, my position among peers, and how crabby I am at any given moment.

Bottom line? This book was delicious, delicious nourishment for my system-obsessed, lateral brain that loves drawing connections between disparate things. As far as alernative approaches to economics go, my arts-major side enjoyed it…we’ll see how it holds up when I start having to do cost-benefit analysis.


  1. Jane Jacobs’ “Systems of Survival” was a important work for me learning about the two distinct “syndromes” which govern economies and human experience. She suggest everyone/things can be divvied up as belong in the “guardian syndrome” or the “commercial syndrome” – i.e. you either participate in making/selling stuff or in protecting and spending the stuff. Chaos or inefficiency arises when these are bridged/muddied. Examples of when these are mixed tend to support this claim. The theory while not perfect is very interesting and worth reading and building upon.

    Posted October 5, 2009 at 9:54 am | Permalink
  2. DaveO, thanks for the recommendation! I’ll be sure to keep my eyes open for it. :)

    Posted October 5, 2009 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

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