We need to talk about scale

Taking responsibility — with humility — for building a world where everyone belongs

Today I want to talk about scale. Global scale. And: I haven’t yet encountered a way of thinking, communicating, and working with “scale” that feels in integrity with how I want to be in the world.

I feel pulled into a false dichotomy: on one side, the colonial/capitalist vision of “bigger is better,” always asking that we “scale up”… and on the other a rejection of that model, an insistence that “small is all,” that only local action matters or can be truly transformative.

I find myself yearning for a post-oppositional approach to thinking and working at the scale that this moment requires… which is necessarily global (as this pandemic and the climate crisis continue to remind us). If we care about reducing suffering — and building a better world — it seems to me that we have a responsibility to think and work at scale. The question is how?

TL;DR: We have a collective responsibility to meet the scale of the crises we face; this requires re-conceiving how we think about scale. This is an invitation to think not about scaling but about seeding: letting go of the colonial/capitalist logic of “bigger is better” to instead embrace nature’s logic of emergence. Scale is fractal, not linear. Whichever scale we choose to engage with (I, We, or World) this is an invitation to attend to the other levels as well. This moment asks us to choose leverage points that have the capacity to transform the system; we can no longer afford not to.


3 dimensional scale: problem, population, time

I take as a given that we as a species — and those of us involved in movements for justice and a better world — need to think at scale. Successfully navigating the global pandemic requires producing and distributing 8 billion vaccines. Any serious effort to arrest and reverse the climate crisis requires a fundamental transformation of the entire global economy. As Taj James aptly observed:

Only transformational approaches rooted in strategies with the potential to advance exponential change can put us on a path in which future generations can thrive.

I think of the question of scale along three dimensions (please pardon my rudimentary graphic design skills):

Of course, success within this framework may not be possible. But as Donella Meadows reminds us in speaking to the importance of setting a bold vision:

If we don’t know where we want to go, it makes little difference that we make great progress… If we can’t speak of our real desires, we can only… [move] toward what we think we can get, not toward what we really want. We only half-try… The less we try, the less we achieve.   

What would it look like to take this challenge seriously?

A new model of scale: from growth to emergence

We have to be bold. Our dearth of imagination is itself exacerbating the very problems we most urgently need to face… and giving rise to counter-movements that move us in the wrong direction (QAnon, the anti-vaccine movement, the rise of far-right nationalism, etc.) Nicolas Guilhot observed:

One looks in vain for the cultural and political resources that would help us see through the apocalyptic haze the possibility of a new beginning, and a better one.

We are interested in transformation in service of a world where everyone — and everything — belongs. Right now the discourse of “scale” is almost entirely dominated by voices that do not share our vision for a world where everyone belongs. The discourse of scale remains largely synonymous with the discourse of capitalism. (There’s an entire podcast series hosted by LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman called “Masters of Scale” exploring the growth trajectories of major companies). But of course we’re not interested in reaching new markets: we’re interested in transformation. Not just breadth, but depth.

Where proponents of change at scale (Bill Gates, Elon Musk, seemingly always men…) do speak to aspirations for a better world, they turn to the same tools that created this one, thinking and designing from mindsets rooted in the logic of colonialism and capitalism. We aren’t interested in deploying the master’s tools, because we understand — like Audre Lorde and Einstein before us — that the same logic that got us here cannot get us out. But nor can we absolve ourselves of responsibility or duck the question. As Cameroonian political philosopher Achille Mbembe reminds us:

Colonial expansion was a planetary project… decolonisation is by definition a planetary enterprise.

The only compelling approach that I’ve found to contest the hegemony of dominant-culture approaches to scale is emergence. Emergence is the story of how transformation happens in nature, and thus the most successful system for scale in the world.

Emergence: cultivating systems of influence

Meg Wheatley and Deb Frieze wrote the field-defining piece on emergence in the context of social transformation back in 2006. They identified three distinct phases for how transformation happens at scale in the context of emergence:

Networks > Communities of Practice > Systems of Influence

It’s a beautiful essay, and has inspired the work of many social justice practitioners (myself included!)… but it was never clear how to move from “communities of practice” to “systems of influence.” They write “it can never be predicted.” The good news: we’re making progress. The bad: we’re falling short of where we need to go.

Networks: I’m encouraged by the emergence in the last twenty years of the field of “network weaving,” shaped by practitioners like June Holley and others (Building Belonging’s inaugural Conversation on Transformation took up this topic). We are getting better at this first stage — I’m really excited about David Ehrlichman’s new field-consolidating book on it.

Communities of Practice: And we’re getting much better at communities of practice, with new platform start-ups like Mighty Networks, Sutra, and Circle arising precisely to meet the demand of networks to engage in shared practice toward shared aims. We’re making progress on the second stage.

Systems of Influence: Yet I fear our efforts toward systems of influence remain largely untethered to a coherent theory of how transformation happens… at scale. We do not have testable hypotheses for how we make the leap from communities of practice to systems of influence. Even contemporary updates to Frieze/Wheatley’s work — like this great graphic put together by the folks at Movement Net Lab — still end with a question mark.

It is true that emergence cannot be predicted. But that doesn’t mean we can’t offer testable hypotheses for how to increase the probability that the systems of influence we long for will emerge. I fear that those of us in the social change ecosystem have stepped away from taking up the question of scale with the rigor, intentionality, and humility it deserves.

We are allergic to scale

Deb Frieze herself embodied some of this shift, joining a collaborative effort led by Manish Jain to challenge dominant-culture notions of scale. They talked of “scaling down” instead of scaling up; in the titular essay, Charles Eisenstein frames the possibility:

In scaling down, we relinquish the ambition to save the world, but we open to the possibility of being part of something that might do just that.

I’m intrigued… but how? The compilation of essays, from some of my favorite practitioners of emergence, doesn’t offer a lot to go on. Deb speaks to the transformative potential of “scaling across,” explaining the distinction:

Scaling up creates a monoculture that relies on replication, standardization, promotion, and compliance… Scaling across happens when people create something locally and inspire others who carry the idea home and develop it in their own unique way.

This idea of trans-local scaling across, however, still borrows from the logic of contagion, or a “contact theory” of scale: it depends on an assumption of exponential growth through personal contact. I influence you, you influence others, until we reach the world. But that theory has obvious limitations. As June Holley notes:

Transformation is unlikely to occur simply by having many communities adopt innovations. Not enough communities will find out about the innovation, not enough resources will be available even for those communities that do want to adopt innovation, and not enough connections among the innovations will occur for a tipping point to be reached.

June seeks to solve for that shortcoming by calling for “multiscalar networks”:

Creating multiscalar networks – networks that cross levels or layers – are what turns innovation into widespread systemic transformation. 

I think June is pointing in the right direction, and I want to build on her insights by offering another way of thinking about scale, in integrity with our values… without letting go of our aspirations. I don’t want us to “relinquish our ambition to save the world” (an oppositional response rejecting the status quo)… I want us to keep at it, with appropriate humility and in ways aligned with the future we desire. I want a post-oppositional response that refuses to be bound by the status quo… or its negation.

From scaling… to seeding

I’ve been thinking a lot about seeds of late, inspired by this beautiful episode featuring indigenous seed-keeper Rowen White, from Prentis Hemphill’s always-provocative Finding Our Way podcast.

And I want to credit the specific connection to scale to a comment from Fiona Brooks in the Thrivable World Mighty Networks community (a community of practice organized around Michelle Holliday’s work on “thrivability.”) Fiona offers this attractive invitation (sharing here with her blessing):

What’s coming up for me is the possibility of seeding (rather than scaling). If we’ve discovered something which nurtures thrivability in the wider system, is there a way we can create and share seeds of the ideas so they can take root in new ecologies in whatever form suits those environments? What might those seeds look like? How do we ensure they contain the essence of the ideas and enough initial nutrients to get them started, but keep them light enough to spread and adapt easily?

Aha — here at last is a metaphor and mental model that I can map to how I’ve been thinking about emergence… and scale. I see three dimensions and therefore three distinct domains for intervention:

  • the seed itself (the idea/transformation we are trying to plant/instill… the thing we want to see emerge)

  • the soil in which it is planted (the systems or structural conditions that determine whether the seed flourishes or dies)

  • the set of relationships between that seed and its surrounding environment (Robin Wall Kimmerer writes beautifully about the interdependent web of reciprocity uniting the “three sisters” of corn, beans, and squash in many indigenous traditions across Turtle Island)

This framing lends itself naturally to how I already think about transformation, and the I/We/World construct at the heart of Building Belonging. The seed is the I, the relationships the We, the soil the World and the structures into which we are born.

And of course: no single one of these dimensions is more important than the others; they are all essential. It offers to me an attractive way to choose how to engage at the scale where you feel called… while still connecting your work to the broader transformation we seek. Here’s Rowen:

The beauty of a seed is that it multiplies exponentially. It is a wonderful example of the natural abundance of the Earth and I think it is also a beautiful expression of the gift economy...The seeds teach us to be generous and to share our abundance with other people and this is really the true nature of things.

Scale is fractal, not linear

I recognize that this same seed metaphor is used within dominant systems: the concept of “seed” funding that emerged in the venture capital world in the early 2000s. I want to be clear that this is NOT the seed-to-scale I have in mind; a model that sees seed as merely a small starting point on a linear progression to something bigger, a mental model couched squarely in the very growth paradigm I am trying to transcend.

It’s also used within social change contexts; when googling I even found a “seed scale theory of social change” from Future Generations University dating to 1992, as well as a “scaling up” theory of large scale change from international development practitioner Larry Cooley in 2012 that also uses a seed metaphor. But these initiatives too, though containing useful contributions to the field, still approach scale from a mindset that assumes it is something to be managed, architected, controlled, somehow coaxed along a linear trajectory.

With due respect to Mr. Cooley’s framework, highlighted recently at a USAID innovation summit (my former employer…), in my view it still feeds into a dominant paradigm of saviorism in the context of international development. A view that sees change agents as disconnected from the problem they are solving, and sees scale and solutions as linear progressions to be managed. So while the metaphor holds, I want to be clear that the mindset underpinning the metaphor is very different… an example of a well-intentioned approach to scale that still emerges from colonial logic.

Scale understood from an emergence framework, by contrast, is fractal. That is, we don’t intervene here in order to do something there. As Warren Nilsson and Tana Paddock wrote in their study of social change organizations:

The social realities that they seek to change are not purely external. They are in the room. (Emphasis in original)

Solome Lemma of social movement facilitator Thousand Currents explains:

You cannot advance liberation or support social transformation if you have not transformed your own practices and the ways your organization does things. Change begins with the organization, and the people within it, embodying what change looks like. That is a requirement to be meaningful contributors to the type of change that justice movements are envisioning and building every day.

This is the core shift: the intervention is itself the transformation. Cause is effect. As adrienne maree brown wrote in her paradigm-shifting Emergent Strategy:

How we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale… what we practice at the small scale sets the patterns for the whole system.

Eco-philosopher Glenn Albrecht reached the same conclusion in his study of living systems:

The microterraphthoric [micro-destructive] and the microterranascient [micro-creative] turn out to be hugely important to life at all scales so we must now pay them close attention.

This is what I mean by I, We, World: transformation is interdependent at all levels.

Focus on one level… attend to all: designing for scale

In a recent conversation hosted by Sam Chaltain’s Seed & Spark community, adrienne maree brown offered counsel that resonated with my own experience:

For each one of us, there’s a different scale at which we’re comfortable… Find a scale at which you can work.

To which I would add: while being mindful of the other scales. The most beautifully nourished soil grows nothing without a seed. The most perfect seed does not bear fruit without a hospitable environment for growth. As Rita Fierro wrote:

Because social change propagates fractally, whichever level you work at will affect the other levels.

This is the nuance to “small is all”; small is vitally important… but so are the other levels (all is all?). As Glenda Eoyang provocatively observed:

If it doesn't work at all scales, it doesn't really work at any of them.

One of my favorite practitioners of scale is Sanjay Purohit, co-founder of the India-based Societal Platform initiative. He explains:

There’s a difference between scaling what works, and building what works at scale.

I know I just critiqued the limitations of Larry Cooley’s framework, but he does offer some valuable insights, explaining:

When you design for scale, you need to pull everything out which is not absolutely essential. It’s a game of subtraction, not a game of addition.

I think this insight is foundational to working with emergence at scale. The core insight that has powerful implications for how we organize is this: complex transformation arises when each individual entity within a system follows a common set of simple principles. Those principles have to be simple and broadly applicable across diverse contexts.

This is easy to understand in the seed metaphor: we know that any seed needs a blend of quality air, water, and soil in order to germinate. From those three basic ingredients (just add light!), the entire world is born.

Leverage points: places to intervene in a system

While all scales are equally important (no macro without micro), not all interventions are equally catalytic. I’ve written previously about Donella Meadows’ classic 1999 essay on “leverage points in a system” and want to return to it here as the final idea in my thinking on scale. Here’s one graphic that serves to make the point:

I don’t want to over-anchor on Meadows, though I find her vision and approach deeply compelling. Contemporary approaches to the field of systems transformation often talk of an “iceberg model” which uses different concepts to make the same point.

The core idea for me is this: no matter what scale we choose to intervene — the seeds we plant, the relationships we nourish, the soil we tend — we must hold as our aspiration systems transformation. Even if the intervention is at the level of the “I” (somatic coaching work, say, or yoga instruction), the resonant wavelength must have as its target the transformation of systems. I would go farther: whichever lever we pull must be oriented both toward transforming the system… AND toward impacting a higher leverage point. Meaning if we want to intervene at point 6 in Meadows’ framework (information flows, the media ecosystem, e.g.), we must be doing so both to move the system toward justice… AND also be doing so in order to influence a higher-order leverage point: e.g. the rules, structure, goals, or mindset of the system.

I know this may feel a little abstract. The invitation is this: we — those of us who hold an intention toward co-creating a better world — need to collectively raise our sights. Instead of asking how we can close the wage-gap, we can ask how we dismantle patriarchy. Instead of asking how we dismantle patriarchy, we can ask what a world would look like where patriarchy was inconceivable. And then we can combine imagination and strategy to identify what those catalytic interventions might be (for a concrete example of how I see this process working in the domain of patriarchy, e.g. I identified six leverage points to dismantle patriarchy here. The point is not whether I’m right: it’s to encourage all of us to ask — and take responsibility for offering an answer! — to those same questions).

Once we’ve done that (admittedly very difficult) work, seeing our role in the broader transformation we long for is so much easier.

“Distribute the ability to solve, not the solution”

I want to close here on a hopeful note, because I do see our species and our movements rising to this moment, in different ways. Increasingly many of us are taking Sanjay Purohit’s advice to “distribute the ability to solve”; it’s about building our collective capacity to meet this moment.

Networks and initiatives are proliferating that share surprisingly similar principles/conclusions. It’s happening with astonishing speed and diversity, at global scale. As I wrote two years ago, I believe that emergence is happening; we are living through the second axial age. It is a time of transformation. Increasingly movement-building organizations and efforts focused on systems transformation talk about “DNA”: getting the core principles “right” to enable self-organizing (I love the new handbook out from the Yet-to-be-named Network, which is a great example of this). Kindred initiatives even adopt the same metaphors; I love e.g. Sandra Kim and Aaron Goggan’s WildSeed Society.

There is a next phase, which I think about as moving from emergence to resonance. I’ll say more about how I see that evolution in a future post (it’s core to how I understand Building Belonging’s theory of transformation). We’re not there yet; we’re still finding each other’s wave-lengths, ones attuned to what this moment demands. I find myself returning to this 2014 post from Jodeen Olguin-Tayler that reminds us of the power of moving together, and the goal we’re moving toward:

“Winning” means transformational and structural change that can be sustained and can birth opportunities for ongoing change and transformation.


The point of this post is not to validate any particular approach, but to invite others to join me in the inquiry, to grapple together with these questions. I want to encourage us to take a shot, to rise to this challenge of offering a theory — one we can test in practice — about how we can reach systems of influence.

As with many of the subjects I take up in these posts, I feel very lonely in the inquiry — it’s difficult to find examples that speak to scale with the care and nuance I’m looking for. I’d love to know who you look to in this space, and what resources you’re finding helpful in thinking — and working — at scale. And as always: what resonates? What doesn’t? Is the seed metaphor helpful? Does the invitation to think about leverage points in both directions feel illuminating?

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