The Scale-Up Problem

Guy M. Burgess
Heidi Burgess

June 2017

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


This video discusses a number of metaphors that help explain how small scale processes can be scaled up to have a larger, potentially society-wide impact. It starts with a health care/medicine metaphor and looks at how individual actions can help or harm individual and communitywide health.  It then look at early physics—Archimedes and the lever, and mythology—the metaphor of Sisyphus, the mountain, and the rock, and the notion of a “tipping point.” Building and flying and airplane, building skyscrapers and playing music add additional ways of thinking about the move from complicated to complex systems and responses.  The video t ends by describing three metaphors which we will explore in detail in subsequent posts: the Google traffic metaphor, market mechanisms, and the learning accelerator metaphor. 

Full Transcript

Frontiers MOOS Seminar
Home | Syllabus / Other Posts
This Seminar is part of the...

Find out more...

With this post, we want to start exploring one of the most fundamental problems blocking efforts to move beyond intractability. It's something we call "the scale-up problem." How do we take relatively small-scale efforts--and that's really the only kind of thing that the relatively small number of folks working in the peace-and-conflict field are realistically going to be able to mount-- and scale those up to the point where they can start to change destructive conflict dynamics at the level of whole societies?

Now, earlier I talked about the advantages of thinking about conflict interventions in terms of the medical pathology-treatment model as opposed to the engineering model. If we start focusing on all of the things that go wrong with the way in which people deal with conflict. and then try to provide ways to fix some of those things -- treatments, really-- over time, one can start to transform destructive relationships.

So, if we follow the medical metaphor just a little bit further, the key to making medicine work isn't just the availability of treatments for some of the pathologies. What you really need is a comprehensive health-care treatment program or health-care system where you have medical centers, like this one from Boulder that has a whole slew of different departments, each specializing in different kinds of health problems. You also need an insurance system, so the whole society can afford access to these treatments. That's the big accomplishment of Obamacare: it takes us closer to that goal, something that a lot of other countries were able to do years and years ago.

And then there's also the larger question of healthier lifestyles. Health doesn’t just happen if one goes to experts and has his or her diseases treated, it's living in a way that reduces the incidence problems needing treatment. So what we need to figure out how to do is to really scale up efforts to deal with small problems, which we're actually pretty good at, to the level that they start to influence entire societies. And here we get back to this order-of-magnitude problem we talked about earlier, where we have to stop thinking in terms of mediation triads but, begin thinking about whole societies, involving millions of people.

And there are a lot of different models for thinking about this. One of the simplest things-- and this, in a sense, goes back to Archimedes-- is this notion of a lever. You give me a place to stand, and with the principle of leverage, I can move the world. A lot of effort has gone into trying to find those very special places where a little, slight push is enough to transform the whole system.

There's another version of this for the tipping point, where you can imagine the struggles of the peace-and-conflict field as being a bit like poor Sisyphus, who was condemned for eternity to push a giant ball up a mountain, only to have it roll back down again. But what we keep looking for is a tipping point, where we take it up over a divide and then, all of a sudden, we're chasing it down the other side.

And there certainly is such a thing as peace spirals, kind of the inverse of an escalation spiral. And we can look for ways of trying to facilitate that sort of thing. But it may not be that these tipping points really exist, or at least they are not as accessible as we would like.

Another metaphor that you can use to try to get at some of this stuff is a bit like this airplane. This goes back to a complicated model, complicated metaphor, not a complex one, but it has some good ideas in it. You can think of the conflict field as a bit like inventing an airplane. And there are all sorts of different components-- the shape of the wings, control surfaces, engines, propellers, all that kind of thing. And the development of each piece, whether it's an engine, a lightweight engine, or a propeller, or how you manipulate control surfaces, or how you shape the wings, each one of those things is a huge step forward and gets us-- or got us-- closer to the miracle of flight.

But we couldn't expect to be able to fly until we had all the pieces. And, in a sense, what the conflict field's been doing over the last several decades is developing a lot of the pieces. But if we don't have all of those pieces, we can't expect to be able to transform societies. And you also have to have all the pieces in sufficient quantities, which further increases the challenge.

Another way you can think about it is that we have a rough idea of how to deal with conflict, just as we started with an idea of how to make an airplane. And, in fact, the existence of human society demonstrates that, in many ways, we're pretty good at it. So, instead of just designing the airplane, or the conflict system, from scratch, you can think of the innovation process-- and again, this is a complicated metaphor, but a useful one, is just progressively refining the design of an airplane, with different materials, more efficient engines, quieter engines, all this sort of thing. And so think of things going that way.

You can add another step to this and think of it also with the metaphor of flying the airplane. We've got a system with all of these controls now, and if we just use those controls wisely, we ought to be able to get in a better place than we are otherwise. And this applies to an airplane, and it also applies to efforts to try to control the social system through the chain of command, maybe starting at the White House Situation Room and extending all the way through the military and government and our allies. This gives you want is called an “unity-of-effort” approach.

Now the problem with all of this, of course, is that this notion that battle plans (i.e., control of the hierarchy) never really survives first contact with the enemy. And that's because the system fundamentally is squishy. And when you have a social hierarchy or set of social relationships in which people do things that they think will influence other people to do things in particular ways, that influence is very squishy, and people wind up doing all sorts of things that may be different than what's expected. And that makes this sort of control model start to break down.

So here you start to make a transition from a complicated model for dealing with the scale-up problem to something that's more complex. And one of the really popular phrases, here, is "herding cats." And the notion is that cats are these mercurial creatures that don't take direction very well.

And so you can't really get them to do what you want, but you can alter the environment a bit, moving the food bowls, changing the resources.  There are sort of subtle things that one can do to try to get this herd of cats or the herd of human society to behave in more constructive ways. And so there are a whole lot of strategies that are based on building this herding-cats metaphor.

And it requires a certain amount of coordination. Everybody needs to have some sense of what everybody else is doing, especially when you're having a donors conference where you might start planning the distribution of resources-- or how you're going to move the food bowl.

Another problem that you run into is something that I've described for years as "the SimTower effect." I don't know whether you're aware of this game anymore. It may have disappeared along with the adolescence of our kids. But when they were early teenagers, they spent a lot of time playing SimTower. And it's basically a game where you design this super-duper skyscraper. And the underlying limit to the size of the skyscraper was elevators. And if you get so tall, pretty soon your whole building is nothing but elevators.

Now fancy, high-speed elevators and multiple-level elevator cars and expresses and things can extend that limit. But ultimately, the limit in the size of a skyscraper is the limit in elevators. And the limit in your ability to coordinate a system with this kind of hybrid complicated/complex model is how much time you spend on coordination. Ultimately you get to the point where you're all coordination and no action. And again, things don't work at that point. So you start to ask about, are there alternatives?

Another problem with the sort of hybrid complicated/complex approach, where you've got somebody who's laid out a big plan and they're trying to herd cats into following that plan, is that you tend to be putting all of your eggs in one basket. And, you know, if your plan's good, that produces sort of the amplified unity of effort. But if your plan isn't so good, then you can make one gigantic, maybe catastrophic, mistake.

Another model that we've been exploring-- and some of the subsequent posts are going to start to talk about this-- is what I call "the smarter cats model." And another version of this is Obama's famous phrase, sort of guiding principle for foreign policy, is "don't do stupid things." If you could get people to understand when they're making stupid mistakes with respect to conflict--and get them to not do it--that's a very decentralized approach.  It doesn't require any sort of central coordination or control-- but it can make the system better.

And here what you're doing is you're trying to exploit the sort of natural evolutionary processes and letting people pursue and learn about and pursue their self-interest in more enlightened ways. And if you can do that, that's another whole approach to the scale-up problem. And that's something we're going to come back to in subsequent posts.

So there's a sort of summing-up sense of all of this, where, on the one hand, you have-- and this is a widely talked-about metaphor, that at the sort of complicated end you have the metaphor of an orchestra, where you have a score, everybody knows exactly what notes they're supposed to play, you have a conductor that makes sure that everybody does what they're supposed to do at the right time, and the music that a symphony orchestra can produce is truly extraordinary. But, if you're dealing with the kind of squishy systems that we are, and you don't have an orchestra that's going to take direction very well, that model starts to break down. And this is often contrasted with a jazz-band model, where you've got guys who have sort of a sense of where they're all going, you give each musician a chance to play and feature their own solo and take things however they want to go, and then it all weaves back together into a single piece of music that maybe played very differently each time. That's sort of a middle ground.

And we've been suggesting that there's yet a third level in this, which is closer to the complex model, what you might think of as the music scene. And here, OpenAir, which is something NPR in Denver uses and, I expect, in a lot of other places-- and basically what they're trying to do is to encourage local musicians of all types. And they provide a place for them to come and perform and share their works with the larger community.  And what you get is a very rich music scene that different people with different sets of interests will view very differently. But it's sort of, on balance, a great improvement. And, in a sense, that's what we're trying to do, is to get people, in a lot of different ways, for different purposes, try to make the way in which they handle conflict more constructive.

So, what we're thinking about-- and this is to sort of give you a sense of where we want to go with all of this-- is, in the future MOOS seminar sessions, we're going to try to explore three different approaches to this kind of complexity. The first is a sort of crowd-sourced model built around the metaphor of Google Traffic, where the Google Traffic maps are available to everybody, they give you a sense of how to avoid traffic problems, and they're created by information sent in from all of Google's users, as well as the traffic-control system and that sort of thing.  And that, I think, is a model that's worth developing into something that can deal with complexity, and we'll talk about that.

Another thing that we're going to talk about is a market-based model. In a world of organic ecosystems, and social ecosystems, market mechanisms have governed the way in which society has evolved. And I think we can harness those mechanisms to promote more constructive approaches to conflict in ways that make a lot more sense. So we're going to explore that, as well.

And the third thing is the learning-accelerator model. And the idea here is the idea of enlightened self-interest, which is, I think, a key strategy. It is based on asking people to do things that help their own self interest, but also help others, rather than asking them to just be altruistic and doing things for someone else’s self interest but ignoring their own.  And what you need is a strategy for enlightening people’s approach more quickly and easily. And right now the conflict learning curve is pretty flat, and people want to and tend to repeat their same old mistakes. So we're going to start thinking about the ways in which we might be able to get around that.

So, for the moment, I have a couple of questions. What's your favorite way of thinking about the scale-up problem? I mentioned a few. I'm sure there are a lot more out there. And we want to hear about them and certainly hear about sources that describe them.

And what general strategy, or strategies, do you think best allow realistic and, inevitably, relatively small-scale efforts to produce major positive changes in the way in which we deal with conflict?

Photo Credits:

Slide 3: food pyramid, USDA Open Domain

Slide 4:. Badger explosion. By Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.Atlantis . By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.  Silhouettes –  created by Gilbert Bages from the Noun Project. Permission: CC

Slide 5: Archimedes. Author unknown. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Slide 6: Sisyphus. CC0 Public Domain. (Pixabay)      Peace spiral. By Gonzalo Medina. CC-by-2.5   

Slide 7:  First flight. By John T. Daniels [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Slide 8: Schematics of DC10-30. By Julien.scavini (Own work). CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Slide 9: Boeing 787 flight deck. By Alex Beltyukov. CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Obama briefing. By White House (Pete Souza) / Maison Blanche (Pete Souza) (The Official White House Photostream) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Slide 10: Unity of effort Public Domain.  Org Chart [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Slide 11: General Moltke Public Domain

Slide 13:  Cats. CC0 Public Domain.

Slide 14: Silhouettes – by Gilbert Bages from the Noun Project. Permission: CC.  Sim Tower: and

Slide 15 Eggs in One Basket. By John Unsworth. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Slide 16: Cat CC0 Public Domain.  Obama  Obama responds to question. U.S. Department of State. Public Domain

Slide 18: orchestra . Dublin Philharmonic Orchestra. By Derek Gleeson. (Own work). CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.  Jazz band  Woody Allen with Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band. By Schlaier (Own work). CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.  Music scene:  Colorado Public Radio studio. By Jeffrey Beall. CC BY-SA 2.0.