The language of small worlds: Useful concepts for entities & properties we cannot ‘see’

This blogpost is about the language of small world networks, and how it helps our understanding of the food supply system.

The last blogpost was about privatives; i.e. words we use to denote an absence of something.

Another limitation about the language we use is this: We don’t describe what we see, we see what we describe. When, however, a word to denote something beyond our perceptual system is used widely, then our perception about the word changes — and the world changes too. (Think how much our health depends on, say, the words we use to for microbes, from the everyday word ‘germ’ to a scientist’s label for a particular crop pathogen.)

A network is a particular kind of system aka a complex adaptive system.  The food you eat has got to you via a tangled web of over-lapping and intersecting networks.

In this supporting blogpost to our response to the National Food Strategy #10: The space between farm gate and food outlet, I wrote this:

It’s a complex adaptive system. Thus it’s largely opaque, not open to introspection. So we need think differently about it.”

My proposition here is that the language of complex adaptive systems and networks will help us better understand what we can’t see but exists within our food supply system.


To introduce some of that language to you, I’m going to begin with the eerily familiar phenomenon of small world networks, aka six degrees of separation. (note: The word phenomenon just means something we don’t understand — and there’s a lot of meaning carried in the word ‘just’.)

I once demonstrated the typography of small world networks with a group of Italian part-time post-grads, many in their twenties, at the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, a prestigious business school in Pisa. I’d asked them to find a connection between any of them and my son, then a 19-year old undergrad at a UK university.

I knew in theory there would be many connections. Yet the speed of them finding one astonished me. But it shouldn’t have done, despite my son then being too young to have many “weak ties“.

The first question the Italians asked was about what sport, if any, my son played.  (After all, the Pisans realised, young men like themselves often play sports, as did my son. He was a good fencer, in his university team.)

Then came a second question, this one for confirmation of his first name.

It turned out one guy shared a mutual friend (guess what, a fencer), two others realised they were two degrees from him . . . and then other people joined in, realising that if so-and-so was in my son’s small world, then . . . and then other links via the first guy, not me, telling the group which UK university my son attended.

The whole of humanity, all 7.7 billion of us are part of a small world network (a link for those of you interested in the maths of it all).

Here’s a more understandable explanation of how a group of Italian ‘strangers’ connected with my son. The most important words in it all are in red:



So how can a story about small world networks change our understanding of the food sector?
We can think of businesses as being nodes in a small world network and thereby have a qualitatively different understanding of the topography of the food sector.

Just as the Italian students found a caveman-like network outside the university sector to which they and my son both belonged (a sport), so, too, food sector businesses are connected to organisations outside the sector.

The food sector and the strength of weak ties . . . (a term coined by sociologist Mark Granovetter in 1973  here)
Examples include packaging and logistics companies, providers of payment systems, insurers, HM Revenue and Customs, etc, organisations that are hubs with a high volume of weak ties.

  • This is why, when we run workshops or consultation meetings to find out more about the food sector, we invite along people from organisations that have a high volume of weak ties from across the sector.
    • Why? They’e more likely understand the network, in particular its connectivity (and so its robustness and vulnerabilities) better than a food provider.

Be wary of big numbers: As Hans Rosling points out in Factfulness, we have an instinct that tells us that if a number is big, it must be important. But it’s an instinct that is can be wrong. Here are two examples:

  • The first example is about a comparatively low number which is, nonetheless, highly significant.
  • The second is about a mistaken perception about the comparatively huge number which, when considering the typography of the food sector, is not significant at the level of the system as a whole — and the reason why is because nearly all of them have few weak ties:
    • The Federation of Small Businesses report there are 5.82M SMEs in the UK, 98.6% of the total number of businesses. Within the food sector, the numbers are big, too; according to Statistica, there were 88,846 restaurants and mobile food service enterprises in 2018.
    • Nonetheless, their presence doesn’t shape the typography of the network. For most SMEs, any hub-like quality will be closer to a personal one within a locality or specific demographic; e.g. a wedding cake maker linked to local photographers, a birthday cake maker linked to local mumsnet or playgroups.
      • That’s not to say that all SMEs are insignificant to the robustness of the network.
        • For all I know, for all anyone knows, there might well be one or a few of those 5.82M SMEs that, should they fail, would put the whole network at risk — or a part of the system that is vital for a particular product, process, location, demographic group et al.
          • Moreover, no-one knows what the full list under the ‘al’ of et al could be. Opaque, eh. A reminder not to focus on a detail within a network — you won’t ‘see’ anything of any significance.


More about the language of networks, and where it all plays out in systems other than our food supplies? Yup, once you ‘see’ networks, you see their typography everywhere.

Here’s a great TED-Ed three and a half minutes’ worth of Marc Samet using brilliant animation to explain key stuff about network theory, including how small worlds work:

See also this later blogpost in the Food System Transformation series #10: Complex adaptive systems, networks and their dynamics.

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