In Orwell’s classic Animal Farm the characters often oscillate between their evaluative assessments on the merits of two or four legs. The value was socially constructed, however in practice there are real tangible benefits socially and otherwise to having two legs, which serves as an apt metaphor for understanding the role of scaling in social innovation.
I was fortunate to be born with two very functional legs. Since I could first walk and run I’ve done so continually with enthusiasm onward of decades. However, there have been times through injury, experimentation or fun that I’ve tried navigating my life with one leg.
On the matter of movement I can say that two legs are not twice as good as one, they are an order of magnitude better. Likewise, I’ve done three-legged races and can definitely say that the benefits of two legs over one do not scale up to three. It’s a toss up whether I’d rather have one leg over three (irrespective of the horrible pant problems three legs would pose to me). I want two and I suspect you do too.
Two legs, no more or less are optimal. If you’re a dog, that can be doubled. If you’re a millipede, you might need to add a few hundred legs to be optimal. So legs scale, but only when you know what the context is.
Two legs good, Four legs better
We don’t know what will scale with all things (and I would argue most things). I have been and remain critical of the dominant push to scaling social innovation out of a misguided, often patriarchal perspective that holds bigger is better. Bigger is bigger and occasionally that means better; they are not equivalent terms.
To get a sense of what scale means: imagine a shower. If you’re the man below, a shower is a pretty good way to get clean.
Now imagine you’re an ant like the one below. You still get dirty, but how good is the shower to you? The ant is going to experience those drops of water that are cleaning up the man’s skin much differently in ways that might literally mean life or death.
Now what might happen if you were a woman? Suddenly, the scale works again. Different being, similar outcome.
Is the shower better for the man, the ant or the woman? Did it scale up and down well? The answers have as much to do with what the point of the shower was in the first place and the perspective we take at the outset.
Facebook as an example of (failing) scale
Facebook provides an example of how scaling is not always human scaled. A look at Facebook’s corporate page will find this:
Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.
Embedded within this mission is an assumption of scaling that isn’t congruent with human relationships. The accumulation of friends on Facebook — something it strives to support — ceases to reflect a reality where our relations come and go, become more or less intense, and often do so on a time frame that can be momentary or develop over a lifetime. All of these relationship scenarios occur simultaneously. On Facebook, they all happen at the same time in the same way, treating relationships as a matter of linear accumulation than a non-linear, dynamic set of temporal engagements.
Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has looked at relationship scaling and developed his famous number of 150 (+/- 50 or so — it’s not precise) for the mean amount of intimate or stable relations that a person can have.
Of course, 150 dynamic relations — of which many will not be interested in relating online — is not profitable so Facebook has every investment in having you expand your network in a linear or even exponential manner in defiance of evidence to suggest its futile.
But as a great mis-spoken friend of mine once said (under the influence of a couple beer):
Futile is resistance
Little did he know how prescient he would be (and how many Star Trek fans he might annoy in that statement).
Resistance and futility
One of the ways to gauge scalability is by the level of resistance to the core function of the activity. To return to the matter of legs, one leg creates resistance throughout the body because of the shock of a single, hopping prop used to propel a body not suited to a single leg. When you see two legs move, there is fluidity within the system that enables a movement that is resisted if you add or subtract a leg. In other words: the body was designed for two legs.
In social systems, the designs we work with are co-created and inherited. In social innovation we often don’t know what the scale of something is often because we don’t know what the natural scale of our social creations are, or that we have no evaluative data to make developmental design decisions. Paying attention to scale and resistance is one way to get a sense of where natural human resistance to change ends and real system-level resistance to scaling begins. I argue that a developmental evaluation and developmental design approach with the right quantitative and qualitative tools can help immensely if combined with mindful attention to these details.
Research — like that of Robin Dunbar and others looking at social systems — can be a guide. We have evidence of programs and ideas scaling well and some not taking at all. A more anthropological, mindful and evaluative approach to understanding what we’ve done and what we’re doing can help when taken together with strategy and knowing our intent. If what we want is better social worlds, maybe two legs are not half of four, but many times better after all.