Since economics and the world at large are intimately linked, it’s useful to pull information and insight from a variety of resources. Non-zero-sum examples in history, complex system science, disruptive innovation, and an interesting set of business stories are the subject of this week’s article. Here are two books, two podcasts and a newsletter that we found to be interesting and insightful. We’d love to hear which ones are your favorite:
Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos by M. Mitchell Waldrop
Complexity science seeks to identify the patterns and behaviors of large adaptive interconnected systems. Some examples of complex systems include: the climate, the stock market, cities, transportation networks, companies with many employees, militaries and some biological systems like ant colonies, etc.
These systems are difficult to model with any real accuracy due to the many individual components that display dependent and competitive traits. Some of the properties of complex systems include: spontaneous order, adaptation, emergence, increasing returns (rather than decreasing returns), and so on. This body of work helps us understand that novelty is to be expected (like the emergence of cryptocurrencies) and that our adaptive nature makes us incredibly resilient. If you are interested in learning more, this is one of the foundational books on the topic.
Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright
Nonzero is a book about the history of human experience and how it is able to continue to grow despite continuous insurmountable challenges. Non-zero-sum refers to scenarios where all parties end up as net beneficiaries. It does not mean there aren’t challenges and losses along the way, just that the sum of the wins and losses are positive.
Nonzero is a book about the direction of history. Is there one? Does the direction of history tell us where we are going? If we are the product of cultural evolution as Wright suggests, then we are becoming more complex as a society and more interdependent. Wright is a journalist, and his view of game theory and the role of technology suggests that the debate about the purpose of humankind is far from over. Wright wrote Nonzero twenty years ago, and the book is as relevant today as it was then. Wright has shown that from the beginning, humans have collaborated to increase their status, their wealth, and their numbers. Not all attempts have been successful. Various places around the world have advanced and appeared unassailable from an economic standpoint. We also know that no culture has lasted in its purest form for more than several hundred years.
Even though he might be writing about Europe in the Dark Ages or China during the Boxer Rebellion, his lessons and conclusions remain timeless. There is a consistent shift between zero-sum activity (I win you lose) and non-zero-sum activity (we all win). Innovative technology is the ultimate non-zero-sum investment factor.
To keep current on Wright’s thinking his Nonzero newsletter is here.
The Disruptive Voice: The Forum for Growth and Innovation at Harvard Business School
HBS professor Clay Christensen is best known for his research on disruptive innovation which is considered to be one of the most influential business ideas of the early 21st century. After passing away early in 2020, his legacy lives on through his many impactful organizations including this podcast. The Disruptive Voice explores his theories through practitioners who have been inspired by Prof. Christensen’s work.
The podcast is hosted by his former Harvard colleague, Katie Zandbergen. The 59th episode on the arts, “La Boheme In The Living Room” did a great job breaking down how arts organizations can continue to survive and thrive in a post-COVID Zoom world. Immersive experiences and the patron’s ‘jobs to be done’ are covered in detail.
The Journal. The Wall Street Journal & Gimlet
I like this podcast because it’s short, which is a rarity in the podcast world. Each episode is roughly 15 minutes. The producers Kate Linebaugh and Ryan Knutson are seasoned WSJ reporters and the co-producer Gimlet specializes in narrative podcasting. The shows on the lumber market and the Colonial Pipeline hack were better than the many stories that I read elsewhere on the same topic. They do a good job of providing full context and asking good questions which is always important when you want to understand what is really going on with a given event.
Alex worked for Chamath Palihapitiya at Social Capital and currently works at Shopify. He covers a wide variety of topics including anti-fragility (originally coined by Nassim Taleb), e-commerce business models, competitive and nuanced business frameworks, predictions as to where we are headed, the origin of Chamath’s interest in the SPAC market and his general take on current events. Alex is a prolific and thoughtful writer. You will find at least one or two useful concepts in his work.
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