Like a pair of jeans, the difference between a successful innovation and something tight and uncomfortable often comes down to size. A broadening global view of efficiency has increased the importance of scale when it comes to new projects and innovators should take into account social and environmental considerations when determining the scale of their innovations.

In the city of San Fernando, La Union, the Philippines, the Prince of Monaco has sponsored the purchase and installation of several decentralized wastewater treatment systems, called Ecotanks.

The tanks look just like submarines. They work like submarines too, except that while a submarine might run on nuclear power and search for whales in the Atlantic Ocean, the Ecotanks mostly just sit under the ground and clean wastewater through passive systems. So really, nothing at all like submarines (apologies).

What is nevertheless impressive about the systems is that they remove the need for energy-intensive machinery to transport the wastewater to a central cleaning point. The community can regulate the system usage itself and, done properly, this has an enormously positive impact on the local environment. Each community can thus be entirely responsible for their own wastewater management with a bare minimum of effort.

The city also decided to decentralize their solid waste management systems. Each neighbourhood was to provide its own waste segregation and collection plan and garbage truck. Probably you have previously purchased, or attempted to purchase, your own garbage truck, so I don’t need to tell you that they are expensive. Few communities could afford them and it would likely have made more sense – since the type and quantity of waste was more or less consistent throughout the city – to have a more centralized system with trucks shared between communities.

A Global Shift

As the global quest for efficiency shifts from the purely economic to consider the environmental and the social, questions of scale and centralization pop up repeatedly.

Until very recently, we thought of efficiency as a purely economic consideration. Through some combination of the challenges raised by globalization and the questions posed by a myriad of global environmental threats, we have moved to an understanding of the world wherein discrete problems are replaced by complex, connected ones. As the global quest for efficiency shifts from the purely economic to consider the environmental and the social, questions of scale and centralization pop up repeatedly.

An innovation must strive for maximum efficiency and effectiveness in scale, or else risk rejection. All innovations have their ideal scale and degree of centralization, somewhere between the individual and the inter-galactic council. It is the negotiation of this level that we find challenging, but it is essential to the future of innovation.

Scale in Governance

The same questions of scale apply, in a broader sense, to governance. For example, the essence of Canada exists in a near-constant balancing, trading and shifting of responsibilities between the provinces and the federal government. Too far in either direction and what we know as Canada would collapse. Whether regulation of public transportation is better suited to be a provincial or federal responsibility depends on the particular social, political and economic forces at play.

Innovators are now faced with the need to consider the scale of their innovation. Too small and it loses economic efficiency. Too large and it may be devoid of social efficiency.

Innovations Waiting for the Right Scale

Consider the example of renewable energy. The technologies which have thrived are those which can be scaled up or down to meet the needs of an individual, a community or a country. A windmill can produce a customized amount of energy, but an equally promising technology such as wave energy has faltered, because there is not yet a way to decentralize a wave energy project so that a community may invest in it.

Advice for Innovators

The ancient Greeks believed that all elements were constantly reaching for their proper level, whether that be up and out or down and inward. We’ve advanced a little bit in the complexity of our innovations in the past few millennia, but the general idea remains: a great idea needs to be scaled up or down to the level at which it can be implemented most efficiently. Of course, a new process or design does not arrive complete with information on what level to implement it at. Engage in a dialogue on scale and your innovation stands a much greater chance of success.

By Stu Campana

About the author

Stu is an international environmental consultant, currently working with Fern Ridge Landscaping and Eco-Consulting in Ontario, Canada. He has a multi-disciplinary background, with a BA in Political Science and an MSc. in Environment and Resource Management from the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. Stu is interested in the manifestation of climate change as a social and political issue, and in the future impacts of these complex problems.