Scale is the most confusing word in social change

Amanda Tattersall
10 min readOct 18, 2022

Not long ago I was sitting in the courtyard of a pleasant city cafe in inner Sydney when a colleague from a big Australian NGO leaned over and said in a hushed but determined tone, that we needed to scale. I nodded. But looking back I wish I had brought more curiosity to the conversation. I could have asked, what did she mean by scale? Did she want more people, more change, action in more places? Did it have to be fast? Did she mean something else?

The question of how we might scale social change is a genuine mystery but it is also faddishly desired. In order to imagine how we might ‘scale’ social change we need to first take back the term ‘scale’ from the corporate startups who made it famous.

Origins

The word scale comes from the Latin word ‘scala’ meaning ladder or staircase. Scale initially referred to climbing, where something — some idea or practice — moved from a ‘lower place’ to some grander space. Geographers were the first to embrace the term. Scale was used to show how a map represented an area in ways that was true to real life. Think of a map made using a ratio of 1:100km; the map scales to represent real life, without stretching or distorting.

Bless the modern business pundits who, in the early 2000s, took the concept of scale and dare I say, scaled it. In organisational theory, and in many popular business podcasts, the word scale describes the journey from ‘small’ to ‘big.’ But somewhat ironically, at the same time that the tech startups embraced planetary scale, unbeknownst to them, geographers changed their approach to scale. Led by the brilliant Doreen Massey, geographers called for a ‘relational understanding of space’ that questioned the idea that ‘bigger’ is always more powerful. Massey said that assumptions like the idea that there is a hierarchy of scales — that global is ‘more powerful’ than the local — are myths. Her work opened a door — might the small and the local also have the power to scale?

In the early 1970s in Sydney Australia, the Builders Labourers Federation forged a series of radical alliances with working and middle class communities in defence of the environment, public housing and urban space. Jack Mundey, the leader of the union, labelled these pickets ‘Green Bans.’ Whilst the union…

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Amanda Tattersall

Associate Professor at the University of Sydney’. Helped start Sydney Alliance & GetUp. Lived experience advocate on mental health.