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The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


How friendships and networks matter for urban economic development

Naji PMakarem23 June 2016

Why do some cities perform so much better than others? According to new research from, Naji P. Makarem, it’s not just down to their resources – both human and physical – but also how people and organisations interact and work together. In studying social relations in business communities, he finds that while San Francisco’s diverse and connected social structure has allowed the Bay Area to withstand new economic challenges, Los Angeles’ comparable regional network has not been able to maintain its connectivity, which has led to relatively poorer economic outcomes for the city. 


“If I’ve learned anything in the last seven years, it’s that ideas live

less in the minds of individuals than in the interaction of communities”

(Fred Turner, 2006-p.VII)


Economists attribute economic performance – growth in output, employment and wages – to initial factor endowments, such as educated workers, patented inventions, lucrative industries, good infrastructure, property rights and excellent public services. This makes sense to the extent that cities with higher levels of these factors are undoubtedly better equipped to grow their economies and incomes. But if we stop to think how these factor endowments produce economic growth and respond to technological, market and political shocks, challenges and opportunities, the picture becomes more complex, dynamic and social.


A closer look reveals the diversity of individual and organisational actors in economic development processes. Such a sociological perspective focusses on individuals and their ideas, knowledge, cultures, world views, interactions and social relations; firms and their practices, strategies, cultures, structures, technologies, capabilities, networks and social responsibility; financial institutions and their lending practices and risk strategies; formal institutions and their laws, regulations, policies, public services, bureaucracy, infrastructure investments, incentives and power relations; and civic organisations such as charities, community-benefit organizations, private foundations, unions and business associations.


A dynamic perspective reveals how individuals and organisations interact to combine and re-combine ideas, knowledge, capabilities, assets and resources into novel combinations in pursuit of lucrative opportunities. Such interaction and re-combination in response to market challenges and opportunities is enabled and constrained by two intrinsically-linked aspects of institutions: The social networks in which actors are embedded, and their formal and informal ‘rules of the game’. Entrepreneurship and investments in a region emerge from this interaction and re-combination in the face of challenges and opportunities, steering urban industrial structures down specific industrial pathways, with its consequent impact on employment, wages and public revenues.


In a new study, I focus on one of these two institutional aspects of urban economies: The structure of social relations in high-end business communities. The economic sociology literature investigates how entrepreneurial and innovative contexts are associated with more connected, diverse and central social structures. While this has been researched using network analysis techniques at the scale of sub-regional industrial clusters, entrepreneurial communities and small cities, it has never been tested at the scale of large metropolitan regions.


To fill this gap in the literature, directorate research was used as a proxy for the social structure of the business community in two large metropolitan regions, the Bay Area and Southern California, whose per capita incomes diverged significantly between 1980 and 2010 (Table 1). This case selection within the State of California to a great extent controls for differences in formal government institutions, broad-stroke cultural and linguistic attributes, climate and geographic location, infrastructure, amenities and distance from the technological frontier.


Table 1 – Per Capita Incomes in the LA and Bay Area CMSAs, 1980 and 2010


Source: Author’s calculations using BRR data.

My analysis reveals that both networks were almost identical and highly connected back in 1982. Figure 1 below shows that the largest component (a fully connected network of nodes, whereby each node is linked to at least one other node) in both networks included over 50 percent of the 70 sampled firms.


Figure 1 – LA and SF networks of board interlocks, 1980.

Source: Author’s calculations using UCINET and NET-Draw.

Source: Author’s calculations using UCINET and NET-Draw.


Over the subsequent three decades of economic divergence however, their network structures also diverged. While the Bay Area’s maintained and even increased its level of connectivity, the LA region’s network fragmented by 2010, with a mere 20 percent of firms in its largest component (Figure 2).


Figure 2 – Percentage of sampled firms in largest component, by year, LA Vs SF

Source: Author‘s calculation, number of interlocked firms in each network‘s largest component as a percentage of all firms in the sample.

Source: Author‘s calculation, number of interlocked firms in each network‘s largest component as a percentage of all firms in the sample.


Figure 3 shows the two networks in 2010, clearly highlighting the connectivity in the Bay Area (SF) and the fragmentation in Southern California (LA).


Figure 3 – LA and SF networks of board interlock, 2010

Source: Author’s calculations using UCINET and NET-Draw.

Source: Author’s calculations using UCINET and NET-Draw.


Turning to the degree of diversity, the two networks were found to be equally diverse in 1982, however by 2010 while the Bay Area network had maintained its high level of diversity, LA’s had declined substantially, despite having more industries represented in its 2010 network. While the Bay Area’s high-end corporate social structure maintained its high level of connectivity and diversity over the three decades of economic divergence, LA’s became less connected and less diverse.


The analysis of centrality of business-civic associations, whose role it is to represent the needs of the business community, is equally revealing. The results on a broadened network (which included the 50 largest Private Foundations in each region) shows the Bay Area Council in the Bay Area to be the most central organization in the network, with an nBetweeness score of 18 percent (i.e. The Bay Area Council lies on 18 percent of the shortest paths between all node pairs in the largest component). This is three times greater than the LA Chamber of Commerce, the most central business-civic organisation in the LA network with an nBetweeness score of 5.86 percent. The Bay Area Council arguably plays the role of an ‘anchor tenant’ within the region’s industrial social structure, connecting business leaders across industrial categories. No comparable business-civic organisation exists in LA.


The Bay Area’s connected and diverse social structure withstood the tumultuous challenges brought about by the New Economy, and successfully combined and re-combined its ideas, knowledge, capabilities, assets and resources in response to these challenges and opportunities. It successfully produced new firms and technologies that carved new industrial pathways in IT, biotechnology and supporting services such as venture capital and specialized legal services. The interactions behind such productive recombination were embedded in a connected, diverse and central high-end corporate social structure. LA’s comparable regional network on the other hand was unable to maintain its connectivity and diversity, and failed to productively combine and re-combine regional endowments in the face of a rapidly changing economic reality.


While my study sheds light on the network dimension of regional business institutions, our co-authored book investigates perceptions and world views of various public, private and civic actors, revealing further notable differences. Policy makers and business and civic leaders may draw from this research by focusing attention on the social architecture behind their industrial structures. Business-civic associations in particular may play a central role in bringing influential business leaders from across industries to interact and think about their regional economies and their collective challenges and opportunities.


This article is based on the paper, ‘Social networks and regional economic development: the Los Angeles and Bay Area metropolitan regions, 1980–2010’ in Environment and Planning C Government and Policy.

Disclaimer: This blog was also posted in USAPP (An LSE Blog)


Naji P. Makarem is co-director of the Msc. Urban Economic Development at the Bartlett School’s Development Planning Unit (DPU) at UCL, and a lecturer in Political Economy of Development.

Business-civic leadership’s urban social responsibility

Naji PMakarem29 October 2015

Mainstream economics attributes economic performance to factor endowments; the characteristics of a national or regional economy expected to impact future output growth and wages. These can be understood as Lego pieces of various colours and shapes needed to produce lucrative products and services. According to this view of the world, the Lego set endowed to cities determines economic performance: Yellow blocks of human capital might be limited to lower educated two-pronged blocks in one region, and higher-educated 5-pronged blocks in another (usually proxied as educational attainment), can explain past or determine future growth and incomes. Factor endowments typically used in growth regressions include population size, the cost of housing, ethnic composition, the industrial structure (often proxied by the share of manufacturing and FIRE industries – Finance, Insurance & Real-estate), innovation (often proxied by patents per capita) and of course educational attainment. Carefully designed econometric models can explain and predict economic outcomes fairly well, given initial factor endowments. They only do so however ‘on average’, evident by persistently high residuals and numerous outliers.

Picture taken by Naji P. Makarem in Los Angeles

Picture taken by Naji P. Makarem in Los Angeles

There are two problems with this approach: First, regions and countries can change the composition of their Lego sets through unpredictable governance mechanisms that create characteristics which the market fails to create, such as by investing in education, infrastructure, changing migration policies and zoning laws. Second, there are much smaller Lego pieces excluded from the analysis, in the form of people, ideas, assets, experience, organisations and capabilities, which can be combined and recombined in a multitude of different ways. The industrial structure of two regions with seemingly comparable initial factor endowments at a given time can evolve and branch out into very different activities, despite initially comparable Lego sets. Their systems of governance can focus on different issues and tackle challenges very differently (as institutional economists and political scientists would argue), and they can combine and recombine smaller Lego pieces in very different ways. Both of these important dynamics are exogenous to econometric models, thus persistently large residuals and outliers in growth regressions.


Our in-depth historical case studies of the San Francisco and Los Angeles regions expose the limitations of the growth accounting and other mainstream economic approaches to explaining economic development. We found that given two seemingly very similar Lego sets back in 1970, and you might be surprised by the incredible similarity on so many fronts, the two regions developed their so-called factor endowments and combined their people, ideas, assets organizations and capabilities very differently: The ability of their regional governance systems to respond to major regional challenges and opportunities, through cross-jurisdictional coordination, diverged significantly around 1950; the perceptions and world-views of their business and political leadership vis-à-vis their regional economy and its role in a globalizing world with serious environmental challenges differed starkly since at least as far back as the 1980s; differences in their corporate practices with regards to attitudes towards failure, entrepreneurship, spin-offs and out-sourcing were starkly different; their civil movements organized and responded very differently to social and environmental concerns throughout the 1900s; and their high-end corporate social structures diverged significantly between 1980 and 2010.

Picture taken by Naji P. Makarem in Los Angeles

Picture taken by Naji P. Makarem in Los Angeles

The Bay Area’s social, relational and political contexts created fertile-ground, as our co-author Taner Osman would put it, for break-through technological innovations, start-ups, spin-offs and initiatives by robust actors to flourish. We show that even though these were abundantly planted in both regions, they had greater regional spillovers in the Bay Area, giving rise to an eco-system of world-leading firms and clusters. In LA however comparable events had negligent spillovers beyond the boundaries of large and highly successful vertically-integrated corporations, or the confines of the Hollywood entertainment complex. The culture and relational structure of the San Francisco region, evident in its long civic and political history and in its recent high-end corporate social structure, allowed the region to develop its Lego pieces and to combine and re-combine its smaller Lego blocks in response to economic, technological and environmental challenges and opportunities. Through this recombinatory process the industrial structure developed new innovative firms, products and services in response to the changing economic reality, carving new lucrative industrial pathways for innovators, investors and entrepreneurs. It is through this process that the industrial structure of the Bay Area evolved, branching out into new unchartered and highly lucrative industrial terrains, producing tremendous high-waged employment in the region. As a result, the Bay Area ‘won’ the New Economy, whereas the LA region missed it, for now. This has had important implications to social mobility, personal incomes and public expenditures in the two regions.


Back in 1970 a person with a job in LA would have earned a very similar wage to his or her comparable counterpart in the Bay Area (same level of education, recent immigrants or not, and in the same industry and occupation); today there is a staggering difference in their wages across all these comparable groups, with the average person in LA earning 30% less than in the Bay Area. And this was achieved with comparable levels of population growth, openness to immigration and levels of inequality. The Bay Area produced its Lego blocks and combined and recombined its smaller blocks better in response to the challenges and opportunities brought about by technological change, globalization and the emergent New Economy.


How does all this apply to developing countries and cities? I propose the following transposition of ideas and insights from our study of the Bay Area and Los Angeles: Business-civic leadership can play an important role in both shaping the perceptions and world views of the broader business community (employees, entrepreneurs and investors), and in mobilizing public and private resources in response to economic challenges and opportunities. Their world views can either be narrow and conservative in nature, focusing on cutting costs by weakening labour rights, reducing taxes and diminishing social and environmental regulations, fearfully perceiving technological change and globalization as a threat, or they can be progressive, perceiving technological change, social and environmental regulation and globalization as an opportunity. Moreover, their regional perspectives can either be narrow in nature, focusing their attention on aspects of their cities that directly impact their business operations, such as access to land, services, connective infrastructure and red-tape, all very important albeit partial aspects of a functional business climate, or broader in nature, incorporating the entire urban system in which they operate, recognizing and valuing the potential gains from a functional agglomeration.

Picture taken by Naji P. Makarem in Los Angeles

Picture taken by Naji P. Makarem in Los Angeles

A functional agglomeration generates agglomeration economies which are the advantages firms and people gain from propinquity. These are namely the advantages of sharing infrastructure costs, the convenience and efficiency of geographically proximate suppliers and customers, the matching of jobs with specific skills and therefore the probability of finding the right job, and the learning from social interaction and people moving between firms. That is the economic rationale behind current high rates of urbanization – cities essentially reduce the transactions costs of all these activities. Business communities with strong and broad regional identities recognize and value the whole breadth of agglomeration economies which the city offers them, and the potential for unlocking its full agglomeration potential.


Progressive business leaders are aware of their interdependence with the region, and therefore they have a broad perspective of the business climate, which includes secure tenancies and the cost of housing, the quality and accessibility of education, congestion and accessible public transport, access to quality healthcare, sanitation, education and social safety nets for all citizens. Together these determine the quality of human capital, people’s access to employment, the quality of social interaction and the propensity for entrepreneurship and innovation, all integral to a functional urban agglomeration. Business-civic leadership in the Bay Area, as reflected in reports by the Bay Area Council and the Association of Bay Area Governments amongst others, have been concerned with broader regional issues such as the cost of housing, the environment and public transit over the past few decades. Progressive business people understand that their community is highly interdependent with the functionality of their urban system, and they mobilize public and private resources in response to urban challenges, with the aim of unleashing the agglomeration economies which they and their children will benefit from.

Picture taken by Naji P. Makarem in Los Angeles

Picture taken by Naji P. Makarem in Los Angeles

Economics and society interact in important and meaningful ways. This offers hope to people in urban economies who might otherwise feel locked-in to a path-dependent low-road trajectory of high unemployment, low wages, poor governance and weak public finance. It also raises community and business leaders to a broader sphere of regional social responsibility. How they think, organize and lead in response to regional challenges and opportunities is important: Their world views, social relations, association and leadership can have a profound impact on regional governance and organizational cultures and practices. As Douglas North argues, “[t]he dominant beliefs, that is, of those political and economic entrepreneurs in a position to make policies, over time result in the accretion of an elaborate structure of institutions, both formal rules and informal norms, that together determine economic and political performance” (North, 2003-p. 6).


The broadening of world views that transcend narrow conservative self-interest has long been the subject of intense research in the fields of psychology and philosophy (Wilber, 1996). Our world views, cultures, organizations (Laloux, 2015) and political and economic systems co-evolve towards greater levels of complexity, interdependence, creativity, compassion and shared-knowledge, and are doing so at a faster rate than at any other time in human history. Business communities have the power and responsibility to facilitate our journey towards more inclusive, just, wealthy and sustainable societies.






Laloux, F. (2014). Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness. Nelson Parker.
North, D. C. (2003). Understanding the process of economic change. In Forum Series on the Role of Institutions in Promoting Economic Growth: Forum (Vol. 7).


Wilber, K. (2007). A brief history of everything. Shambhala Publications.