Scaling and discontinuities in the global economy

  • Shana M. SundstromEmail author
  • Craig R. Allen
  • David G. Angeler
Regular Article


Investigation of economies as complex adaptive systems may provide a deeper understanding of their behavior and response to perturbation. We use methodologies from ecology to test whether the global economy has discontinuous size distributions, a signature of multi-scale processes in complex adaptive systems, and we contrast the theoretical assumptions underpinning our methodology with that of the economic convergence club literature. Discontinuous distributions in complex systems consist of aggregations of similarly-sized entities, separated by gaps, in a pattern of non-random departures from a continuous or power law distribution. We analysed per capita real GDP (in 2005 constant dollars) for all countries of the world, from 1970 to 2012. We tested each yearly distribution for discontinuities, and then compared the distributions over time using multivariate modelling. We find that the size distribution of the world’s economies are discontinuous and that there are persistent patterns of aggregations and gaps over time. These size classes are outwardly similar to convergence clubs, but are derived from theory that presumes that economies are complex adaptive systems. We argue that the underlying mechanisms, rather than emerging from conditions of initial equivalence, evolve and operate at multiple scales that can be objectively identified and assessed. Understanding the patterns within and across scales may provide insight into the processes that structure GDP over time.


Complex adaptive systems Cross-country analysis Convergence clubs Discontinuity analysis Resilience Scaling 

JEL classification

A10 E0 O57 O470 



This research was supported by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Natural Resources, and by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada doctoral grant. The Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit is jointly supported by a cooperative agreement between the United States Geological Survey, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, the University of Nebraska−Lincoln, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Wildlife Management Institute. Support from the August T. Larsson foundation (NJ Faculty, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences) is acknowledged.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare they have no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

191_2019_650_MOESM1_ESM.docx (550 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 550 kb)
191_2019_650_MOESM2_ESM.csv (148 kb)
ESM 2 (CSV 148 kb)


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit, School of Natural ResourcesUniversity of NebraskaLincolnUSA
  2. 2.U.S. Geological Survey, Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit, School of Natural ResourcesUniversity of NebraskaLincolnUSA
  3. 3.Department of Aquatic Sciences and AssessmentSwedish University of Agricultural SciencesUppsalaSweden

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