The Magic in Smallness

big is better

I think the picture has it backwards. Fritz Schumacher's Small Is Beautiful has much to offer still 37 years after it was published. Perhaps the most persistent remnant is the concept of appropriate technology, developing and using tools fitted to the local culture. His concerns were mostly about the importing, then and now, of technology willy-nilly to the developing world without regard to how it would be used in practice as opposed to the designers' theory, and how it might negatively impact local cultural structure. He was one of the first to point to the weaknesses of GDP as an indicator of social well being. Implicit in much of his work is the idea that scale is important, and specifically that small-scale institutions are more appropriate for flourishing than the huge, complex systems of modern, industrial nations. Chapter 4, "Buddhist Economics," which remains the most memorable for me grew out of his examination of small, local economies.

Although Schumacher did not point explicitly to complexity as a, perhaps the, underlying constraint to governing large economies and polities to produce flourishing, I find it everywhere in his writing. In continuing to think about complexity as a subject for this blog, the importance of small scale is evident. Frances Westley, writing a chapter about managing real complex systems in Panachy offers a critical lesson for those who would take on complexity in their work towards sustainability. Within this largely theoretical and conceptual treatise, Westley writes of the exploits of a successful natural resource manager, Evan Karel. The article presents a careful analysis of why Karel was successful; a rare combination of personal commitment, perspicacity, political skills, and ability to adapt.

I add to this analysis an aspect not explicitly raised in her analysis: overall size of the system. The area Karel managed was a relatively well bounded ecosystem. It was small enough that he could observe the consequences of his efforts to manage in sufficient detail to discriminate between what seemed to work and what did not. He could speak with enough authority and legitimacy to convince those in positions to provide tools and institutional support to enable him to to modify the governance regime at critical junctures.

The scale of this system was small enough to allow learning and adaption, the essence of pragmatism. As scale gets greater, the system begins to exceed the capacity of the governor's ("manager" has too much of a mechanistic sense to use here) capacity to learn and understand the system, without having to reduce that learning to a set of deductively derived rules. Local economies, following Schumacher's notions, work to a large part because those involved can learn how the system works through practice, and can move continuously towards sustainability within the bounds of their economic community.

The recent health care reform legislation has a part designed to allow small-scale experiments designed to settle on bundles of practice that achieve what is defined as sustainability in the health care system: stable costs, positive health outcomes, and equality of access. A few have noted that this portion of the extraordinarily complex package may be the most important. I agree, and see this general approach as critical in moving toward sustainability in the larger context.

Even as I am becoming more and more aware and convinced that small-scale is essential(necessary, but not sufficient), global institutions continue to grow by leaps and bounds. Walmart, my bete noire and epitome of massive scale, this week announced their bid to obtain a controlling position in Massmart, the third largest distributor of consumer goods in South Africa. The monoliths continue to march along.