Not to Scale

Jamer Hunt: Not to Scale. How the Small Becomes Large, the Large Becomes Unthinkable, and the Unthinkable Becomes Possible.

Grand Central Publishing, New York, March 2020

This is a very recent book, published this month, that suddenly became way timelier than I am sure even the author was able to imagine.

Jamer Hunt talks about scale, and about how it effects our life. The full title of the book is: Not to Scale. How the small becomes large, the large becomes unthinkable, and the unthinkable becomes possible. I think that says it all.

As he puts it, scale becomes increasingly important when everything is tangled with something else in some way or another.

These days with all the challenges, numbers and questions about the virus spread and its possible consequences this becomes even more visible. At what scale we look at these challenges – on the level of individual – family – community – city – nation – global – also affect what we see and what might appear as rational behaviour. Mass-buying toilet paper in the face of a crisis might not seem rational on a global level, even if we would find the rational to do it as individuals.

An empty diner in New York due to the COIVD-19 virus and social distancing measures.

In the beginning of his book, Hunt shows how the same situation can look different in different scales. He has many great examples, but one he uses is the comparison to the American designers Charles and Ray Eams’ “Power of ten” . It is a very well-known film from 1977 showing a couple having a picnic on a lawn and then zooming out into space. The film shows you in a very practical way how scale affects what we see; on the scale of  10¹ – we see the individual, in 10² -the family 10³-the neighbourhood, then the community, the city and so on… If you haven’t seen the film it is available here: 


Hunt gives us four lessons to take away from each act of scalar framing:

1. Every local problem is likely also a global one (today, almost everything is interlinked)

2. Act at the scale that maximizes your own capacities (whether this is helping your local elderly or affecting national policies)

3. Insight can come from reframing your problem at a different scale (our current knowledge is always bounded, and we act rationally on this limited knowledge. What about things we don’t know? We might get new insight by changing our vantage points.)

4. Each new scale brings new possible collaborators. (If you rethink your problem from a different scale you get new actors and stakeholders who become essential collaborators in the process)

Hunt also refers to Hans Monderman, who was a traffic engineer and urban planner, and his three strategies for rethinking:

• think in scale

• embrace uncertainty

• put our bodies and senses back in the picture

I think all of these strategies are very valid today.

As the situation around us unfolds, we will all have to start to think about things in a new way. This relates as much to the smaller and more individual challenges at hand (If schools are closing what do we do with our children? How can we develop on-line learning quickly?) to the larger and more systemic challenges of healthcare and the economy. 

There is no easy solution to this. As Hunt puts it; to design, plan, innovate or even act at scale is to swim in the ocean of systems: complex, fluid, and dynamic systems. Today we are acutely aware that everything affects everything. Hunt calls this entanglement, or the rise of interconnected and essential networks and systems. The other shift he sees is the increased immateriality of the world, through digitalisation. In these days when we need to find alternative solutions to physical contact, this might well become not just part of the problem but equally part of the solution.

Because more than anything, to me Hunt’s book is a book of hope. It gives us answers and ideas of how we can start building something new, together. Although Hunt agrees we are still to invent the new cartography that would cover chaotic networks and ecosystems of information flows, he talks about empowerment, and about how thinking through scale and participatory ways of working can make better solutions – and faster. He reminds us that small inputs can unleash big results, and likens these leverage points in systems to the acupuncturists needle to a suffering patient.

Although there are benefits with both top-down and bottom-up movements, Hunt puts the focus on the middle. He asks us “How can we scale good ideas in ways that don’t simply re-enact the same thinking that caused the problems in the first place? If we want to put a dent in the massive problems that we have created, we will need ideas and solutions that can alter the course of thousands, millions, or even billions of people’s lives”.

The advantages of top-down systems are that they can scale ideas and decisions quickly, and have oversight of the entire process. However, insights and decision-making are taken away from those closest to the “facts on the ground”. In bottom-up systems local actors have agency and autonomy and they are highly responsive to local conditions and contexts, but they are not very fast to scale.

The challenge, according to Hunt, is to design protocols so that many can contribute to collective creation and decision-making processes without simply swamping the process into further chaos.

He uses the analogy of growing roses. If we want to grow them, we might design and build a lattice, so that the roses have an infrastructure for successful growing. The aim is for the roses to grow and for the lattice to ultimately fade in the background. In the same way, when we are building a building, we need scaffolding, Once the building is done, the scaffolding disappears.

This is how Lego describes “Scaffolding” at the Children’s Discovery Museum in Palm Springs.

Hunt proposes scaffolding also with a larger intent: to design an intermediary framework that is not the thing itself, but by means which many different configurations may emerge. The aim is not to create a single idea multiplied, but to nurture the conditions of possibility for diverse results to emerge.

So how does one develop a scaffolded process? The process should be open and responsive, but Hunt says these elements are typically found in the process:

1. Attunement: the more the merrier. The aim in this phase is to listen, process, learn and mirror the community’s thinking to establish common ground and to empower all participants

2. Ideation: Glimpses of the possible. Making insights, dreams, fears and worries material and visible begins a process of creating consensus around the directions for the project. The “solution” then becomes a program, or a set of conditions that evolves to fit the shifting context.

3. Prototyping: Envisioning together. Make things fast, cheap, temporary and provisional. Get feedback. Each successive prototype is qualitatively less wrong than its predecessor.

4. Programming: create the conditions of possibility. A scaffold or a platform. The scaffold is a condition of possibility – once its job is done it will recede into the background, just as a lattice gives way to blooming roses. The hand of the designer may be more present in this phase.

5. Recursion: How the scaffold learns. Small ideas scale and good ideas learn. The design of a path forward for one community can translate, or scale into another.

6. Feedback: consumption as regeneration. Each new idea expands and evolves the idea further.

Maybe this new situation will allow us to think in new ways, and maybe, like Hunt said, to create the conditions for change to happen on a larger scale. One step at the time.  I hope that his book will be an inspiration to many for starting to think about how we can support each other and create structures for change, together. I know it was for me. If you have the time, read it. And take care of you, your loved ones, the society you live in, and the world around us.



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