Is Our Hunger For Scale Starving Real Growth?
Syndicated from, May 22, 2012

3 minute read


Stay humble. Stay close to the earth. That's at the core of this existence, I was told.

And so, for years, I've wrestled with living the "less-is-more" life in a world that seems to be busting at its seams — in every way — financially, physically, psychologically.

That sentiment tends to get lost in the "more-bang-for-your-buck" schemes, the two-for-one offers.

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.

These days, for a nonprofit to garner a significant grant, it must illustrate that its model is not only applicable for the local populace of, say, 250,000, but has the potential to reach millions. It's not only suitable for inner-city Los Angeles, but also Detroit. It's not only plausible in the drought-stricken Sahel region of Africa but also in the dry lands of western India.

A venture is successful if it has the means to go beyond the community, if it has the capacity to impact hundreds, thousands, if not millions of lives. A business is termed a success when it has offshoots.

Scale is something we should all be aspiring for. That's what investors are seeking, that's what grant makers are looking for, that's what entrepreneurs are yearning for.

But, we have to ask ourselves, is there a limit to all this? Does scalability really solve our problems? Is it not possible to have a variety of social enterprises, tackling local problems in their own unique way? Is not possible for a business to cap off its growth at the local/regional level, thriving off the local community, its resources, its agriculture, its human capital?

Can we not have micro-enterprises replicated instead throughout the country? Rather than having one central production and service unit, can we not create smaller, more inclusive ecosystems?

For instance, in a previous column, I wrote about the Bicycle Coffee Co. in San Francisco. It decided to hand roast its coffee and deliver it on bikes. That means it can only go so far — as far as their calves will let them.

But the company has already been approached by international ventures, inviting them to cities around the world with their business model. So, do they scale or do they stay close to the Bay Area?

Scale here may mean recreating the business model with a localized team, regional resources and absorbing the surrounding culture. It would be about creating micro-enterprises, which don different faces where they go. No central source, no central production. But still have scale?

Can we stop ourselves? Can we restrain ourselves? Even if we can afford it, even if it's free, even if it's sitting on our doorstep. Can we turn away? Can we build a new scale — a smaller, more humble, dustier scale in touch with the roughness of the earth, with the struggles of our neighbors, within the limits of the tilled earth?

Can we have dreams that look inward, deepening ourselves and our ties with each other, rather than scaling outward?

Perhaps that means we need to rethink growth.


This post is reprinted here with permission from the author. More from Esha Chhabra, a journalist who focuses on innovation, social enterprise and tech-driven initiatives for development and social impact. She writes for the NY Times India Ink blog, Good Magazine, Inc Magazine, and other platforms.

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