“Does It Scale?”

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Spend any time with public policy nerds talking about ideas to make the world better, and someone will ask the question: “Yeah, but does it scale?” 

As a public policy nerd who uses that language a lot myself, I think it’s worth asking what we mean.

The underlying intent of the question is noble. Asking, “Does it scale?” is a recognition that there are urgent problems to solve, and each one of us has precious few years on Earth in which to make our contribution. So we ask, “How many lives can I touch? How much good can I do?” Or a more clinical, “What’s the rate of return on investment” of time, money, intellectual, and emotional energy?

Not everyone operates this way, of course. Many people are content to devote their living years to things that will only ever change the lives of a few, but will shape those lives profoundly. For most of us, this isn’t a bad way to spend your energies. On an emotional level, it’s almost certainly the most rewarding. Think about good parenting: because it’s a nearly all-consuming, lifelong relationship, it inherently cannot “scale.” You do your utmost to give the best preparation for life that you can to one or more humans, and you can die knowing you gave someone everything, even if the rest of the world will forget you. 

But what if you had the opportunity to help a thousand people be better parents? Or ten million?

There’s a subset of people who are called to fix something out there in the world. Who see a problem and then can’t stop seeing it. It tugs at their idle moments and aimless thoughts. For that person, the difference between efforts that scale and those that don’t is everything.

The “scale” question prompts us to recognize and then look beyond responses to problems that inherently will never do more than tinker around the edges of the problem. Things like community gardens as a path to local food self-sufficiency (they’re great, but they’re not one), better lightbulbs as a way to fight climate change (ditto), employer-sponsored bus passes to counter traffic congestion, or requiring developers to build a few affordable units per project as a remedy to sky-high housing costs.

Scalable impact is something we ponder deeply and frequently at Strong Towns. We’re an organization with a staff of 10 and a ludicrously ambitious stated goal of changing the North American development pattern. The only way to credibly approach such a goal is to focus on activities that we believe will have a profound multiplier effect. This in a nutshell is why we produce content for a mass audience, instead of consulting or writing white papers. We want our work to scale.

And yet, there’s an important wrinkle in understanding what “scale” ought to mean.

Scale the Impact, Not the Enterprise

I asked recently, in a couple public forums, “How do we get far more small-scale developers and builders working in our cities—ten or a hundred times more, enough to answer the naysayers who claim that incremental development doesn’t scale?” (This is the subject of an ongoing research project I’m undertaking to better answer that question—look for it later this year.)

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