Correlated compounding loops

A thing that became a bit more visible for me is this idea of correlated compounding loops. I used to picture feedback loops as these crisp, independent structures, and found that it is rarely the case in practice. More often than not, it feels like there are multiple compounding loops and some of them seem to influence, be influenced, or at least act in some sort of concordant dance with each other. In other words, they are correlated. Such correlation can be negative or positive.

Like any complexity lens, this is a shorthand. When we see correlated compounding loops, we are capturing glimpses of some underlying forces, and as it happens with many complex adaptive systems, we don’t yet understand its nature. All we can say is that we’re observing a bunch of correlated ones. To quickly conjure up an example, think of the many things impacted by the compounding loop of infections during the pandemic.

The thing that makes this shorthand even more useful is that we can now imagine a continuum of correlation between two compounding loops with two completely uncorrelated loops at one extreme and them coming together in perfect union at the other. Now we can look at a system and make some guesses about the correlation of compounding loops within it.

It seems that there will be more correlated compounding loops in systems that are more complex. In other words, the more connected the system is, the less likely we are to find completely uncorrelated compounding loops. To some degree, everything influences everything.

There are some profound implications in this thought experiment. If this hypothesis is true, the truly strong and durable compounding loops will be incredibly rare in highly connected systems. If everything influences everything, every compounding loop has high variability, which weakens them all, asymptotically approaching perfect dynamic equilibrium. And every new breakthrough — a discovery of a novel compounding loop — will just teach the system how to correlate it with other bits of the system. In a well-connected system, the true scarce resource is a non-correlated compounding loop.

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