In the international development and global conservation worlds, there is a preoccupation with scaling.  Doing something positive in a single community is nice, so the thinking goes, but can never be enough.  If we identify something that makes one community, or one province, or one ecosystem a better place, then we need to scale that something out so it makes the whole world a better place.  But you don’t scale out a nervous system, or Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, or the Brazilian rainforest.


Simple, complicated and complex

Scaling is something you do for technologies.  In the endeavor that is sometimes called research for development, the objective is often described as generating innovations or technologies and then scaling them out.  The notion of what constitutes a technology here can be understood broadly.  It might be a tool or a gadget, but we can also describe a package of tools, gadgets, inputs and practices as a technology.  We could similarly conceive of a particular method, process, or approach as a technology that we might want to scale out.  In my field, some of us are perennially seeking support to scale out approaches such as community-based natural resource management (CBNRM), landscape approaches, and holistic management.  And I fear that this way of thinking about our work distracts us from our actual purpose, while also producing some unintended consequences.

The scaling of technologies takes place in the context of systems.  At the most basic level, a technology is used within a system of technologies.  The technology of a new seed variety depends on technologies for ploughing and harvesting, a technology for transporting the seeds to the farmer, and technology for transporting the farmer’s harvest to the consumers, and all of these technologies together can be thought of as a system.  But beyond this, the adoption, use, and outcomes of a technology also depend on political, cultural, economic, and ecological systems.

Systems can be simple, complicated or complex.  For a simple system, if you implement the technology correctly, the technology solves your problem.  A piece of wood, a nail, and a hammer constitute a simple system.  In a complicated system, more sophisticated engineering may be required, but the task is still one of finding a correct solution.  A jet airplane is an example of a complicated system—it’s intricate, but there is a correct way to put it together.  In complicated systems, context is important.  If you engineer a better widget for the airplane, you can scale that out to other airplanes, but it will almost certainly fit in some types of airplane but not others.  If you’re scaling out a technology, you need to pay attention to context because the technology may be right for some contexts but not for others.

Complex systems, however, are different.  They are made up of overlapping subsystems at different scales.  They are multifaceted and contingent, with boundaries that depend on how you define and describe what you have decided is part of the system.  Someone else may look at the same complexity and delineate the system differently, and you may both be correct.

Complex systems have emergent properties: characteristics and outcomes that result because the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  Their complexity also results in nonlinear dynamics, threshold effects and tipping points, uncertainty, and unpredictability.  Ecosystems, for example, are complex systems.  The complexity compounds when you also take humans into account because now we’re dealing not only with biology and ecology but also with psychology and culture.  Ecosystems are complex; interconnected social-ecological systems are ultra-complex.


We need more jazz musicians

Stepping back to look at the totality of our work, what is our overarching goal?  Is it to scale technologies?  Even considering “technologies” that we believe have so much to offer (for me, I’ll put CBNRM and landscape approaches in that category)—even for “technologies” such as this, the answer has to be no.  Within the grand pursuit that we call development, our purpose is not to scale technologies; our purpose is a multifaceted mix of interdependent goals:  goals such as justice, material well-being, resilience, sustainability and prosperity.  To put it another way, our goal is to help steer complex social-ecological systems in a direction that helps them produce these emergent properties.  And emergent properties are not something you can just scale out the way you do a technology.  When we are scaling out a technology, ultimately we are doing so within the context of complex social-ecological systems, and while technologies can contribute to our purpose, they are not themselves the purpose.

Ultimately, the metaphor of engineering and then scaling a technology is not particularly appropriate for “social technologies” being implemented within complex social-ecological systems.  The uncertainty and unpredictability of complex systems means that attempts at scaling will often be unsuccessful, and that the technology will always need some degree of both initial and ongoing adaptation.  Using a scaling strategy in a context of complex systems is going to be hit-and-miss.  Even when our scaling is successful, it still may produce unintended consequences.  Instead, if our aim is to steer complex systems in a direction that helps them produce emergent outcomes such as prosperity, sustainability and social justice, then the scaling of one technology is not the answer.  Rather than engineering and then scaling, a more apt metaphor for the role of the change agent may be that of a gardener, or a musician in a jazz band.  We should not be scaling a technology, but rather should be applying a diverse set of tools, creatively and adaptively.


Change agents, participation, and complex systems

However, there’s an aspect of the scaling mindset that I think is even more problematic.  Proponents of CBNRM like to say that it is a participatory process, that it integrates local knowledge, customary institutions and traditional management practices, and that it one of its key principles is ongoing social learning.  For a community process to be participatory means that it is the community that controls the process—the community may choose to speed it up, slow it down or completely change it.  Scaling, on the other hand, implies that you have a technology that has been standardized and is ready to be widely applied.  How does this fit with participation and community-ownership?  An organization from outside, whether a government, a multilateral organization, or an NGO, cannot scale something that it doesn’t control, something that can (and should!) be adapted and redesigned by a community even as it’s being implemented.  If our hope is that the community will create its own process built around ongoing social learning and the integration of local knowledge, institutions and management practices, what’s left for the external organization to report to its funders as having been successfully scaled?

We are dealing here with complex social-ecological systems.  We should not think of CBNRM as a technology or even an approach that we should be scaling out within a complex social-ecological system; rather, we should think of it is as a set of desirable characteristics for that system.  This is even more important when we are talking about implementing landscape approaches, in which the complexity is compounded by having multiple communities and stakeholders and a complex system that is made up of other, overlapping complex systems.We should not think of CBNRM as a technology or even an approach that we should be scaling out within a complex social-ecological system; rather, we should think of it is as a set of desirable characteristics for that system. Click To Tweet

In this way of thinking, the role of the external change agent is not that of a marketer selling a product or an evangelist seeking converts.  Nor is the task is one of engineering a solution and then scaling it out.  The process might be informed by science, but the process as a whole is more art than science.

Because of the way that global conservation and development programs are funded, applying this kind of thinking to work in support of landscape approaches, CBNRM, and related approaches is frustratingly difficult.  Current programs and funding mechanisms aren’t set up to support diverse, creative and communities to learn as they go along and adaptively and artistically do their own thing.  They insist on projects with fixed timelines and inflexible reporting systems.  If you’re one of the change agents at the implementing end of these funding streams, your success will be measured in terms of the extent to which the “technology” has been scaled out.  It’s about time that we rethink the whole thing.