Do Relationships Scale?

Go Small to Go Big?

There is much discussion about scaling social innovation  — bringing small successes to a larger theatre — yet little is known about the properties that make something work at one level successful at another. When the “thing” to scale is relationships, such as the case with knowledge translation and design, is bigger better or even possible? 

Last week the Design Management Institute held its annual North American conference themed: Design at Scale. The conference featured many prominent names in branding, market development, graphic design, and design management together to discuss the ways in which the creative process used in design can be leveraged from one level to another.

One of the best technical examples came from David Butler and Gerardo Garcia from Coca Cola who showed their modular design system being used to transform the way small local retailers in South America can create large or small displays with products that are regionally appropriate with ease. While it was interesting to see how one could create retail displays that could easily adapt and scale, I  was left wondering whether the same system would permit the social variables associated with each of these 1 million vendors to do the same thing. Are these vendors likely to view the modular system in the same way that Coke does? Does it even make sense to them? Surely for some that will be a “yes”, but will it be as many as Coke thinks and does this system solve a problem that the retailers have as much as it aims to satisfy Coke’s goal of doubling its revenue in the next decade?

While the physical product generated from this system might scale, the relationships that surround its implementation might not.

Which got me to thinking about the other lessons that came from the conference. Perhaps the most intriguing ones were those presented by Jamer Hunt, the Director for Transdisciplinary Design at Parsons The New School for Design. Hunt drew on the work of design legends Charles and Ray Eames and their film the Powers of Ten as a means of illustrating scale and what it really means (which he wrote about in Fast Company article last year).

An aside: The Powers of Ten was shown on the first day of my first class in psychology when I was an undergraduate at the University of Regina and was used by my professor, the truly remarkable Paul Antrobus (PDF),  to illustrate the realm that psychology could play in the universe. “This is the realm of psychology” he declared. It is something that has probably never been uttered in another class in psychology anywhere and probably should be everywhere. It changed the perspective I brought to my work and has changed my life in ways I can’t fully comprehend.

What The Powers of Ten does is illustrate scale at the macro and micro level by showing how great, yet relatively consistent, the differences are between different scales. Scalar changes happen at an order of magnitude that becomes difficult to grasp as one shifts up or down due to the massive, exponential change that, at small scales seem palpable, but at large scales seem incomprehensible. Jamer Hunt made this all the more concrete when he used the example of an ant taking a shower. No matter how intentional an ant might be about wanting a shower, the water molecules from a shower are too big and would crush him (or her). The water doesn’t scale.

Social innovation, social design and communications (particularly knowledge exchange and translation) is largely about relationships. Developing intimacy, expressing empathy, creating trust, and having authentic and meaningful conversations are the hallmark of healthy and strong human relationships. They also tend to cluster with good, effective practice in the above-mentioned areas. There are good reasons why (contrary to what Paris Hilton might suggest) we don’t have a lot of BFF‘s in our lives: we can’t maintain that level of closeness with a lot of people. It is precisely because we create a sense of intimacy with a few, that the relationship with the many is able to be maintained as it is. Relationships change, evolve, grow and whither, but the absolute number of close, personal relationships for people tend to remain relatively constant, even if that number differs between people.

The work by evolutionary psychologist and anthropologist Robin Dunbar has looked at these relationships and found that, by and large, we are not able to maintain meaningful relations (nevermind close relations) with more than about 150 (with a large standard deviation). While the variance in this number is large, the implications for scaling might be larger. Some of Dunbar’s original research with primates suggests that our brains are simply not evolved enough to handle the complexity of too many more relations.

It might also simply be less enjoyable. Meaning is something that requires attention to create and use and the more variables competing for attention in your life, the less meaningful things might be. If this is the case, can we design programs and initiatives that scale up from small to big? Or do we need to reframe the way we see scaling to something akin to a network, whereby there are a lot of small nodes connected together? Networking nodes seems to be a way to go big and go small.

If so, what does this mean for designing systems that scale? It might also mean that for those of us working to develop solutions that scale that we need to pay attention to the social and mathematical issues that come with scaling something. It means paying attention to psychosocial physics and dynamics and using research more intently to inform our designs and social innovations lest we scale in ways that create metaphorical water-droplets that are so big crush those we seek to shower.

1 thought on “Do Relationships Scale?”

  1. Scale is frequently referenced in social innovation. How do we scale a social innovation from one jurisdiction to others? Thinking about Cameron’s post it makes me wonder if scale needs to be scary.

    Let’s start with the proposition that knowledge mobilization is a process that results in social innovation and that knowledge mobilization is the act of creating relationships between researchers and decision makers. Therefore, social innovations are dependent on relationships. Cameron proposes, and I agree, that relationships likely can’t scale. But if a social innovation is to scale from one jurisdiction to another then we are not asking for more relationships with the first jurisdiction but to create new relationships in the new jurisdiction using evidence gained from the first. In this scenario, we are not scaling the number of relationships with the first jurisdiction of the social innovation but increasing the total number of relationships over all jurisdictions.

    One might also hypothesize that after a max # relationships have formed in a jurisdiction you might need to split the jurisdiction for further local scaling.

    Relationships might not be able to scale per jurisdiction but if you create the max # relationships possible to max the coverage of a social innovation in a jurisdiction then move to a new jurisdiction your social innovation might just scale on a macro level because it is the sum of the max # relationships on the micro level.

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