If scale is what got us in this mess, is scale really what will get us out of it?

There’s a need, it seems, to acquire and expand. And it’s not just in our personal and material lives. Startups want to scale — that’s the most critical stage for them. How do we expand? How do we robotize it so we can speed up the process?

Nonprofits need to collect data for “impact” reports, illustrating how their ideas are not only innovative, but scalable.

It’s a numbers game to grow and, if possible, grow exponentially. That’s the sign of success — numerical growth.

Everything needs to have scale. Scalability is like sustainability now — another simple concept made far too abstract and complex.

Yet, what used to be sustainable can no longer be so because we live at roller coaster speeds. The small-town businesses struggle against the giants because they cannot “scale” or, perhaps, they don’t want to. Hence, as consumers, we have to decide do we go for the local “brand” or the corporate one? It’s one or the other, it seems.

So, should scalability really be such a big focus?

Sustainable lives are smaller lives. They’re lives that are in sync with the community, with the earth, with each other. Scalable lives require us to extend ourselves beyond ourselves.

In the social enterprise world, scale is plenty important for most actors. The impact investors, the foundations, the social entrepreneurs they’re all talking about how to scale, how to measure impact at scale, how to build the missing middle or how to select and supports those few enterprises that can grow. I am (and have been even more before) certainly ingrained with this mindset.

Now from a perspective of (environmental, at least) sustainability in many regards it was the advent of large scale production and consumption that got us into the mess we’re in right now. The disconnection between production and consumption of food, the carbon costly supply chains, the export of environmental degradation to the places which can manage it the least… all of it came on the back of rapidly scaling enterprises and global systems. It has elevated environmental and social challenges to a size of equal proportion meaning that we now no longer talk about the survival of individual communities but of everybody (well, except maybe for the 1% – they can afford to pay their way out of the mess).

One answer to these challenges have been touted as globally scalable social endeavors – be it the Gates Foundation or Grameen Bank. However, isn’t this just repeating the same process which got us in trouble in the first place?

The signs are there: much-touted microfinance have been shown at scale to have little effect on poverty (http://blog.linuskendall.com/microfinance-contribution-on-poverty-reductio) – in Andhra the scale of microfinance got so out of control that it contributed to a spate of suicide and eventually extreme government reaction.

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