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Scaling back our assumptions about scale: Why ‘bigger’ often means ‘worse’

A pretty, but unrelated picture from Tulum, Mexico by Jen Wilton

A pretty, but unrelated picture from Tulum, Mexico by Jen Wilton

It’s easy to equate ‘significance’ with ‘scale.’ In brief, ‘more is better… or at least, more relevant.’ The news perpetuates this, deeming something ‘newsworthy’ based on the numbers of people or the amount of geography affected, but we also reflect this in what we choose to give credence to on social media and in our lives, more generally. In government, we look to policy, far more than we look to local examples. In organisations, we look to executive decrees, far more than we do to what the person across the office is doing differently at their desk… But in doing so, we may be missing much of the really important stuff.

Relying on scale to determine significance can give the impression that the world is full of mostly bad news. Bad things can happen at a scale that good things very rarely do. A war, an oil spill, a hurricane – the impacts are huge, via almost any lens we choose to view them. But the really good stories don’t often happen in a way that affects such large numbers, all at once (and when they do, we probably have reason to be suspicious – think of the 1st Obama win, and how few of the hopes of millions were realised?).

But there’s a core issue here: We only take things seriously if they are BIG.

Think of all the small scale stories you’ve heard of really amazingly positive examples of one thing or another in the world. It may have been an ignorant idiot who posted a derogatory picture of a Sikh woman he saw with facial hair, but saw the error of his ways. Or the story of the Mexican city that governed itself for 6 months without elected leaders or police. Or the European cities that removed all traffic regulation and reduced accidents and improved traffic flow.

You probably know the kinds of stories I’m talking about. They make you feel good, but then you likely dismiss them and often forget about them soon after. The train of thought often goes: ‘that’s cool! …but so what? There are bigger problems in the world, these individual examples won’t really change anything.’

But good things are often far more subjective than bad things. We don’t all agree that the same things are necessarily ‘good.’ No one wants an oil spill, or a war to hit them. What we do want is far more varied, meaning that a great example in one place won’t necessarily be a great example in another place. Or trying to ‘apply’ a great example across a wide range of people and situations (like so much government policy, or organisational strategy), rarely works because the same approach will be received differently, from one place or community, to the next. (Read ‘Walk Out Walk On’ for an excellent explanation of ‘scaling up’ vs. ‘scaling across’).

What if we could see each of these small scale examples of the kind of world we want to live in, as reminders of the possibilities that exist all around us? They won’t look the same where we are, but that doesn’t mean they can’t offer a sense of hope, inspiration and possibility for us to create our own positive examples in the spaces we’ve got.

One of the biggest challenges we face, is our inability to imagine possibilities that are not part of our current realities. Because we haven’t experienced it, it seems impossible.

For the last eight months I’ve lived in Oaxaca, Mexico, a city that did just what I described above, governing itself for 6 months, without any semblance of government structure. With no police, its crime rates dropped to record lows. It only came to an end when the federal government launched a campaign of terror, just before Christmas in 2006, re-asserting control and dismantling the systems that local people had created to organise their lives together. Until then, self-organised systems were ensuring a kind of participatory democracy – while still often a messy experiment – that few of us have ever known.

But it was possible. Lack of government does not necessarily mean ‘chaos’ – people can come together and achieve amazing things without imposed bureaucracies. It may seem inconsequential to many, but it demonstrates potential, where many of us would previously have seen only a pipedream.

What about the story I also mentioned above about the guy who posted a picture making fun of a Sikh woman with facial hair. While his act was callous and ignorant, he was able to see the error of his ways. When the woman confronted him online, not with offence or anger, but with compassion, explaining why she had chosen not to remove her facial hair, as part of her spiritual practice, he was able to shift at a level many of us think of as impossible.

She did not respond with anger and defensiveness as so many of us would. He was not as permanently ‘bad’ and unable to learn, as many of us would have assumed of someone taking such a stupid and offensive action. If she can find compassion for him, and he can change, they demonstrates another often unimagined ‘proof of concept’ for the rest of us to take on.

Or what about Bohmte, Germany, where the city decided to get rid of all their traffic regulations? Traffic flow improved and accidents dropped considerably.

We often assume the worst of others, but when we are forced to really take responsibility for our own actions, and think of others in the practical choices we makes (like whether to drive or stop), we can create more effective and well-ordered systems that work for everyone.

‘It would never work here,’ many have said of this story. At some level they’re right. We can’t cut-and-paste our solutions across differences and expect the same results. But it did work there (and actually has in several other bold cities around Europe, where the EU has supported its ongoing implementation, because it has been so successful). The possibility this offers for changing how we choose to organise ourselves is immense.

Large scale systems are far too complex to often be radically changed overnight by a single event, so if we rely on scale to tell us what’s worth paying attention to, ‘good news’ will never be able to compete with a few really big horrible stories.

How many revolutions, as moments of great hope, have truly gone on to offer the kinds of change that people had expected of them?

If we can change the world, our countries, or our organisations for the better, it won’t be the result of one attempt to do so. It will be the result of many actions, almost invariably spread out over vast time and space, in which people make the choices to affect whatever is in their scope to affect, gradually connecting with others who are doing the same.

When we dismiss small scale examples of positive change, in practice, we dismiss any real possibility of positive change, at all.

What we, as a planet, want and need, cannot be captured by any single change. While a bomb or a flood will invariably be bad news for everyone affected by them, we can’t say the same of the far more subjective notion of positive change. There is no ‘good bomb’ that will spread positive effects in the ways war spreads bad ones. We’ve got to figure out what we really want for ourselves and in conversations with those that surround, and take action to make these things possible where we are.

And conversations don’t make headlines, but they are often the places where good things start to happen. I’m doing my best to give even the smallest examples of a better world the significance they deserve. If they can inspire me to see a new possibility, they can do the same for others. And who knows where they might take us? It might change the world, though we’d probably only notice retrospectively…


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Posted in hierarchy and learning and power and social change.

2 comments

2 Replies

  1. Thanks Liam for all the great links here, and for all you wrote.

    I go to so many events where people out the front are making huge impact, which can be discouraging to us lesser mortals who are trying to do stuff – but our stuff is on an invisible level in comparison.

    I appreciated this. A thoroughly encouraging and inspiring post for all of us “small scale” people.

  2. Glad this was able to encourage and inspire, Pam! Really glad to hear it!

    Also – too often, in my experience, the people speaking at events about the ‘huge impact’ they’ve made, are rarely telling the same stories as those who have crossed paths with their orgs in the real world. I’ve rarely heard of big organisations having nearly as significant impacts on peoples’ lives, as the locally based ones – too much context is missing in the attempts at large scale change.

    It’s the ‘invisible stuff’ that gives me hope, because at the smallest scale, it’s much harder to hide from the side effects and consequences that don’t fit your narrative, than it tends to be for those who are further away from the local realities. Local/small keeps us all accountable.

    Thanks again!
    Liam


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