My discovery of systems through the words of Jane Jacobs

In 2005, I had been living for over two years, in Kampong Thom, central Cambodia. I was working on community development and local governance participation in local governance in a GTZ (now GIZ) rural development programme. I also worked on my PhD research on education decentralisation and community participation in school management, which I did with the University of Tampere in Finland.

Early in the year, I sent a paper to an international education conference in Oxford that would take place during the summer. The paper was accepted. I did not think Cambodia was on the radar of international development research. But here I was, a few months later, in Oxford, staying in a student room in one of the colleges at my first major international conference.

My panel and presentation were on day three. I followed the proceedings, but my mind was on the presentation, which I rehearsed several times a day in my room. During one of the evening dinners in the college hall, I happened to sit next to Prof, Mark Bray. I knew who he was. During my research, I read several of his articles and publications on community engagement with schools in Cambodia. He was one of my main literature sources. He was very interested in my research and promised to be at the presentation, which made me even more nervous.

The eight-minute presentation went in a flash, and I have very few memories of it. The Q&A went well and I was encouraged by the feedback and comments I received about my research in Cambodia.

That afternoon, I decided to skip the conference presentations and wander around Oxford. It was sunny. Not too hot. I walked around. I looked into the gates of the colleges and tried to imagine how it would be to study there. Down a small alley, I saw an academic second-hand bookshop and entered to have a look. The shelves reached the ceiling and I had to walk almost sideways in between them. 

The title of a book caught my eye: The Nature of Economies by Jane Jacobs. I did not know her, but I was intrigued by the title. I opened it and read the jacket copy. The book was written as a Platonic dialogue between three friends, which intrigued me even more. I bought the book and finished reading it before landing in Bangkok on my way back to Phnom Penh two days later.

 As I read the book, I experienced a profound realisation. Through the words of Jane Jacobs and the characters in the book, I discovered a language for systems thinking. The articulation of something I had intuitively grasped through my research and work with community-based organisations in rural Cambodia – the interconnectedness of social systems.

Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs was a renowned and self-taught urbanist, writer, and activist who lived from 1916 to 2006. Her most famous book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), profoundly impacted the way we think about city planning and city systems. She opposed the centralised, expert-driven urban renewal planning that characterised much of mid-20th century urban design in the United States. She saw planning that prioritised cars over pedestrians and public transit as deeply harmful to urban life. She argued that the focus on grand plans ignored communities’ real needs and dynamics and destroyed the vital social and economic networks that gave cities life.

Urban planning and development were male-dominated fields at that time and Jane Jacobs’ critique was considered radical and faced significant opposition and criticism. Her lack of formal credentials was often used to dismiss her ideas. Jacobs encountered sexism from male intellectuals and planners some of whom fiercely criticised her work and ideas.

The Nature of Economies

Jane Jacobs published in The Nature of Economies in 2000.  The book applies Jacobs’ unique perspective to economics. Jacobs felt that traditional economic models were too abstract and theoretical. They failed to account for the real-world messiness and unpredictability of how people create and exchange value. Jacobs was deeply concerned about economic issues like inequality and stagnation and The Nature of Economies is her attempt to spark discussion and challenge conventional thinking and opening the door for new approaches. 

It is her attempt to bridge the gap between abstract economic theory and the lived reality of economic life, always emphasising the human element and the potential for organic, self-correcting development. The book’s central thesis is that economies, much like natural ecosystems, follow similar laws of development and self-regulation. Understanding these natural patterns can lead to better economic policies.

The key ideas in the book include: 

  • Economies are complex adaptive systems, not static machines. They continuously and dynamically evolve similarly to biological organisms.
  • Like ecosystems, economies grow through processes of diversification, specialisation, and creating new niches.
  • Healthy economies naturally shift from relying on imports to producing goods and services themselves. This process drives innovation and expansion.
  • Natural systems use feedback loops (both positive and negative) to maintain stability. Jacobs believes similar processes exist within economies.

The Nature of Economies and me

The research method section of my PhD thesis, Chapter 2, starts with these words:

“Development is a process of change. Whether it comes from within a society or is introduced through external support, the change must confront the traditional values of local cultures, often leading to unpredictable effects.  Jane Jacobs (2000) highlights its complexity and unpredictability, describing development as an open-ended process, a qualitative change that “can’t be usefully thought of as a line, or even a collection of open-ended lines.  It operates as a web of interdependent co-developments.” (p. 19). 

Since I stumbled upon Jane Jacobs’ book in Oxford in the summer of 2005, I have continuously gone back to the concept of a web of interdependent co-developments. It has accompanied my research and development work for more than two decades. It has compelled me to delve deeper into systems thinking, political economy, adaptive development, and developmental evaluation.

I have found that in some of the projects and programmes I have been involved in, it has been easy to apply the mindset and perspective suggested by  Jane Jacob. In some initiatives, this proved quite difficult. Some development initiatives struggle to relinquish the illusion of certainty regarding change and outcomes, failing to grasp their deep entanglement within the systems they’re trying to influence and how those systems constantly shape them right back.

To me, Jacobs’ work is a constant reminder of the challenges and rewards of embracing a systems-oriented mindset in the field of social development and policy reforms. It reaffirms that humility and an openness to learning remain essential for navigating the unpredictability of development work.

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