#19 Whoops: Off by 100,000%

Scale challenges what we measure. What is bigger, my teenager's grades or her trust in me? Why do we have data on pet startups, but nothing on how governments spend? Most importantly: How deep is the Slow Lane?

#19 Whoops: Off by 100,000%

I love sizing things up. Every once in a while, I come across a number that changes everything for me. For example, at home, we have an ongoing conversation about how much waste we produce. How best to avoid, and separate it. At one point, I was curious: How big is the impact of our waste on climate change? I found that, in America, the average person produces 0.4 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year through waste. As I was trying to get a sense of what that number meant, I came across something that really changed my perspective. Eating a vegetarian diet for a year, instead of the average American diet, would save as much CO2 as all the waste produced by a person over eight years. Meat and seafood alone generate more than a fifth of our entire carbon footprint. Eating a vegetarian diet is a simple, personal choice. Reducing waste to zero is immensely complex. (I went 99% vegetarian within weeks).

There is a signalling power in what we measure, a gravitational field pulling us into these pervasive mindsets of dominance.

In this chapter, I will write about scale. At home, I try to practice the Slow Lane principles in different ways, at different scales. I can easily size up the impact of going vegetarian in carbon emissions, or avoiding cruelty to animals. Things get trickier when I think about practicing empowerment. If, on Saturdays, I refrain from playing the game of dominance and instead truly listen to my daughters (see Story #9), how does that compare? There is no easy measure of empowerment, but bringing up children who experience trust, love, and their power could turn them into lifelong agents of positive change in the world. Chances are, that they would have more confidence to stand up to what is wrong, or act to change things around them. I may only influence the behavior of two young people, but would they not influence countless others, including their children down the line? It is easy to let things slip that leave no visible mark, that can't be measured. That's how many systemic problems come about in the first place.

The Gravitational Pull of Bad Numbers

Numbers are never neutral. Usually, they are tied to our deepest belief systems. In a world that celebrates dominance, success is less about knowing a lot or doing good, but about knowing more and doing better than others. At home, this can create really uncomfortable trade-offs. If I want to empower my daughters to develop a sense of control and experience trust, can I force them to do more homework at the same time? We measure the performance of our children in countless ways: grades, sports, skills, how many friends they have, and even how other adults see them. I have yet to get a measure for what matters most: mental wellbeing, happiness, care for others, or sense of agency.

There is a signalling power in what we measure, a gravitational field pulling us into these pervasive mindsets of dominance. This is a frightening Fast Lane dynamic. As more and more people buy into the narrative of a race to the top, they buy more education in the hope of getting there. Not only do we stop trusting our children, not imparting that all-important experience of unconditional love, but we also drive up the cost for everyone else. It becomes an arms race. The more everyone tries, the costlier it gets for everyone to keep up.

Why we don't measure what matters most remains a mystery to me.

There is a business saying: “If you can't measure it, you can't manage it”. Mark Johnson would argue that without trust, you cannot run probation services because you cannot get to the truth. Truth is of the essence when you are trying to help an ex-offender rebuild their lives. Otherwise, you will miss vital information about their substance abuse, relationship, or financial problems. Innately, trust is very hard to measure. That is one reason why prisons don't measure it. That makes it no less critical. Mark makes a pointed observation when he says that building trust doesn't fit into the 'tough on crime' and 'market forces will improve rehabilitation' narratives used by politicians in the UK. It may be hard to measure, but just as importantly, measuring trust might signal inconvenient truths about the prevailing doctrine.

In 2013 political leaders in the UK chose to measure what suited their 'tough on crime' and the 'market will fix it' narrative. The result: a derailed rehabilitation for tens of thousands of ex-offenders, and crime went up by 140%.

Mark's approach, incidentally, is not to measure trust as such. Instead, they build trust with a proven method that inserts peers into the exchange of information. User Voice creates safe spaces for more honest sharing. What User Voice can measure, as a result, is a notable improvement in the satisfaction with the overall experience by both ex-offenders and probation staff. They also measure what happens next. Less violence, less crime. The government's 2013 rehabilitation reform chose to focus on a different number. The cost of providing rehabilitation services became its north star. It had the advantage of being both easy to measure and fitting its narrative. Their justification was that the system needed more competition among the providers of rehabilitation services to become more effective. The result: the rehabilitation of countless ex-offenders was derailed, crime went up by 140%, and hundreds of millions of pounds were wasted (see Story #12).

Playing Without Numbers

Why we don't measure what matters most remains a mystery to me. With just a few clicks on Google, I can get dozens of data points on even the tiniest startup. How much money they raised ($300 billion in 2019), where they are located (63,000 in the U.S. alone), or how much they are worth. Analysts obsess over the flows of money, growth rates, hiring. It is easier to find data on Nom Nom, a pet food retailer, than data to explain why Chicago had chosen not to provide safe street crossings for blind people (see Story #13).

When I began my work on public procurement, the way governments spend their money, I found yet another problem. No one was measuring anything. There was simply no data or information available. Public procurement may sound uninteresting, but it is huge. Local governments alone spend six trillion dollars a year. That's bigger than the world's entire oil & gas or technology industries. It is of great public interest because it has such an outsize effect on our lives. And yet, I found nothing anywhere close to the kind of market studies, analyst reports, or research centers that dissect most industries from tourism, to cars, to metals, or solar panels.  I couldn't even find the number of municipal governments in the world (I counted 551,000).

At Citymart (see Story #14), it took us thousands of hours to size up procurement. One year, to see what's going on, we even read every single procurement published in U.S., Canada, the UK, and Ireland. All these numbers became essential tools to put public procurement on the agenda, to make the reform urgent, and mobilize public interest. Collecting our data helped us shed light on what was broken, and reframe the opportunity. Before, most people interested in data had focused on transparency, the risk of corruption, and overspending. We presented a different perspective, departing from convention to reveal the incredible influence procurement could have on improving public services.

Sizing-Up The Slow Lane

Writing about the Slow Lane, I naturally wanted to know how big it is. I wanted to know, how many movements like User Voice, the Dine Community Health Alliance, or Recyclers in Peru are out there. Are people like Albina Ruiz, Denisa Livingston, Yuraima Martin, and Mark Johnson a rare species like a Saint or a Unicorn, or a part of every community?

My early attempts to size up the Slow Lane yielded poor results. Not finding statistics, I asked experts like funders, activists, and others who study the field. According to them, there are 40-80,000 social entrepreneurs in the world. That felt reasonable. Experts roughly defined social entrepreneurs as being people who started an organization with the purpose of solving a social, or environmental problem. People like Albina, Denisa, or Mark. Ashoka, a global non-profit that pioneered the field of social entrepreneurship, came up with a similar estimate. Over the past forty years, they have screened tens of thousands of social entrepreneurs to select their four thousand Ashoka Fellows (disclosure: I am both an Ashoka Fellow, and Ashoka is my current employer). This small number of Fellows reflects their very strict selection criteria, that include factors like the ethical fiber, and whether the idea of the social entrepreneur is systems-changing.

A billion people contribute to the Slow Lane by volunteering, making many of these long journeys possible.

Fifty thousand made sense to me. And it began to frame my thinking. I began to assemble a picture of the Slow Lane, of fifty thousand movements like User Voice in the Slow Lane, working to solve social problems. For every sixteen-thousand people on earth, there would be one movement! Did that mean the world had fifty-thousand unmet social needs, like the problem of waste that Albina saw in Peru in the 1970s? I came across another number I found fascinating. The UN estimates that a billion volunteer in society, one in eight people on earth, contributing the equivalent of 125 million full-time employees. They made many of these long journeys to change possible. Some movements, like Albina's, will have tens of thousands of members, others will be smaller, organizing smaller communities.

Whoopsie: Not a Flock, But A Galaxy!

And then I found a different number: fifty million. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) is a large global scientific study, that in 2015 that interviewed almost two hundred thousand adults around the world about social entrepreneurship. They found that fifty million people fit the following criteria: they had started or were leading activities, initiatives or organizations, that have a particularly social, environmental or community objective, and that put these goals over financial success. It was an almost identical definition to the one that gave us the fifty-thousand, only that this wasn't a guess, but a scientific study. My mental model had been off by 100,000%!

100 million stars, Peta Galaxy source: NASA

This changed everything. Where before, I considered the Slow Lane to be an impressive effort to change the world, the GEM estimate made it truly abundant. To put it into context, there are about two-hundred million businesses in the world. Fifty thousand movements felt a bit like volunteering does: a sideline, albeit impressive. Our collective conscience. But at fifty million, it was abundant, not so much conscience as a real human desire. The number also made it more impactful politically. Instead of one in ten-thousand people promoting social change, we were now talking one in two hundred people. For every four CEOs, there was a person like Albina, Mark, or Denisa who were leading a movement or organization. They had seen an injustice, something broken, and had decided to act.

Scale is Imagination

Despite this impressive correction, I am only a small step closer to understanding the true scale of the Slow Lane. We may be able to guess how many movements there are. But what is that worth, without knowing what really matters: how far these movements are in adopting the Slow Lane Principles. Knowing that millions of people want to change something can only be the start. Remember, it took Albina thirty years to refine her practices. Where are these fifty million movements on their journeys? Are they tempted by divisive practices, do they count their wins, or are the building bridges, and empowering others to lead?

At fifty thousand, it felt like the collective conscience of the Fast Lane. At fifty million, it was abundant, a real human desire.

Nevertheless, I am blown away by the idea that fifty million people self-identify as leaders of change. Whatever their tactics, it takes courage to take responsibility to lead initiatives, organizations, or movements. Would anyone embark on this journey if they didn't dream of changing things for the better? There is plenty we can do to help, especially if they are all around us.

Scale is not a linear science, but a playful exploration. Thinking scale helps us spot long-overlooked patterns, get tempted, let go, and discover something new.

Thank you for reading. In this chapter, I will share stories that explore scale. My next story will explore how a disease of one can spark a national movement. Following that, we will see what happens when a master of scaling audacious change fast, goes all in to go deep.