Everything’s a Network

I ran across this on Paul Kedrosky’s blog – an article discussing international shipping as a complex network. It reminds me of some of the work I did in my PhD studying international trade as a complex network. Here is the diagram of shipping lanes and ports:

It raises a few interesting points about networks:

  • Networks are everywhere! And it’s useful to analyse economic networks because you often find out interesting things. In this one the big news is that a lot of the most important ports in the network are places I’ve never heard of, and I bet a lot you haven’t heard of them either. One of the great things about network analysis is that you can learn about key players in the network, which might have been hard to identify otherwise.
  • The hub ports seem to serve two purposes. Some of them are places that act as shipping conduits, like the Panama and Suez Canals. Others are endpoints, like New York/New Jersey and Antwerp. These are still conduits, but they are points of transition where cargo shifts from sea to land and vice versa. It would probably be useful to sort the ports along these lines.
  • Network links are often surprisingly persistent. Antwerp has been a hub port for hundreds of years – since back in the time that Belgium was a major sea power. One of the things that surprised me in my thesis research was that Belgium is still a hub in international trade, even though we don’t think of it as a significant economic player anymore. Trading ties based on colonial relationships seem to persist for long after the formal ties have been severed as well. It is often very difficult to unbreak ties once they have been formed (and this is why it is often difficult to get new innovative ideas to diffuse through an economic network).

Networks are a central part of economic life. Gaining a better understanding of the network structures in which we’re embedded is an essential part of trying to get our innovations to spread. This study of international shipping gives us some useful insights into what we can learn from network analysis. What do you think you could learn if we studied the networks in your organisation?

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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4 thoughts on “Everything’s a Network

  1. Actually, what caught my attention was that the article was titled, Finding the Shipping Center of the World and ended up identifying the 20 “most central” ports. This begins to capture in network terms what Christopher Alexander expressed in an architectural/design framework: a living structure is composed of a rich and highly interactive set of strong centers that mutually reinforce each other through such properties as levels of scale, alternating repetition, echos, local symmetries, deep interlock–all of which are clearly present in this graphic.
    The implication for network analysis and strategies is to identify currently strong centers and then watch for the ways in which creating or strengthening another center or set of centers would further enhance or reinforce the entire network fabric.
    This is where things get to be fun!

  2. That’s pretty interesting Ken. I’ve kind of resolved myself to never building a house Christopher Alexander style (but I do use some his patterns!), so building networks using his ideas might be a great alternative!

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