A Different Take on Scale

May 28, 2014 3 Comments


I will admit to being a bit dubious when I read articles about “scaling social impact.”  A fair number of these pieces come from rather privileged places and can smack top-down solutions that perpetuate existing and problematic power dynamics and largely ignore the specifics of local realities.  I am also concerned that many continue to hold an industrial/mechanistic/extractive view that renders “scaling up” simply more of the same old damaging same old.

So I have been heartened to hear different takes on scale this past month in a few conversations about evolving a more regenerative, “human scale”, and equitable economy.Esteban Kelly, of the New Economy Coalition, recently made the compelling and resonant point that part of the power of collaboration across dimensions of difference is that it  “allows us to ask bigger questions.”  This occurs both through achieving more of a distributed and mass voice but also through garnering greater insight stemming from diverse systemic perspectives.  One might call this “scaling inquiry,” and the ability to ask more powerful and positively disruptive questions, which I want to explore further in a future post.

The second comment I want to highlight was made at a session I helped to facilitate on academic-activist partnerships at last week’s WKKF Food and Community Gathering in Detroit.  Participants were invited to get into mixed groups of four and take turns sharing the story of their work for racial equity in the food system. Predictably, people found this to be a powerful exercise, and one community activist shared that she found great hope and “a sense of scale” conveyed through the many examples of amazing work going on across the country.  “Hearing from others gives greater meaning because we realize it’s part of a bigger work.”  This we might call scaling story, weaving what otherwise might be isolated examples into a larger narrative that inspires greater connection and commitment.

In highlighting these, I do not mean to suggest that simply asking questions and sharing stories is sufficient, but I do see them as forming a powerful foundation to explore more meaningful, equitable and life-affirming approaches to scale that get at the root of what ails us and respects diverse starting points and definitions of success.  This is, in fact, what we are exploring in a few different networks focused on evolving food systems and the economy.  And I am eager to hear about others’ efforts in this vein and thoughts about different takes on scale.



  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Curtis, I have shared your dubiousness about scaling, AND have recently found the work of SSIR and Monitor about Transformative Scale interesting in this regard. http://www.ssireview.org/transformative_scale

    Jeff Bradach and colleagues have identified two main approaches to scaling with several variations within each approach. One begins from the question “What would it take to expand what we are doing (that is effective at this scale) to benefit more and more people?” The other begins from the question “What would it take to end the phenomenon we are addressing?” and then works backward to what it will take–and importantly, how we will have to change the way we do our work–to get from here to there. I have been thinking about the second question a lot as we sharpen our new focus on cities. How can we take what works so well at the scale at which IISC operates and make it work for many more people, in many more places, who are working on many more issues?

  • Regarding scaling human community, it seems hard to beat the “magic” number of 150 discovered by anthropology. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar%27s_number

    But for obvious reasons, we cannot stop trying. We cannot rewind the clock of history.

  • GibranX says:

    This is good stuff Curtis. Appreciating your points as well as Cynthia’s below. I also think we need to consider intent. Growth is the central prerogative of capital. It is not surprising to find our thinking conditioned under the same standard. I like the distinction between “scaling up,” which feels like replication from a central location, and “scaling across,” which refers to the “trans-local” process of learning from other communities while working within the context of yours.

    I’ve also been known to discourage clients from expanding and encouraging them to focus in such a way that their effort becomes a light onto itself – an attractor that people want to replicate before you even try to persuade them to do it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *