#22 Playing All The Scales

Successful movements work in all scales to build highways to empowerment, going from 1:1 all the way to the corridors of power.

#22 Playing All The Scales

We can master scale for better or for worse. As we conclude this chapter, I will look at how a clear sense of who it is we are solving for will determine what we achieve. GoStudent, an Austrian education technology startup, shows us how dangerous the practice of scale can be. It also reminds us of the practices that make Slow Lane movements succeed. To see how technology can also do good, we will see how Serlo, a volunteer association, has built the kind of caring learning technology that empowers young people to tailor education to their needs.

Go (Compete) Student!

Here is how the Fast Lane thinks about scale. Recently, my colleague Judit shared news about an Austrian startup, GoStudent, with me. They had closed a 300 Million Euro investment round to expand their online tutoring for children. In an interview, GoStudent founder Felix Ohswald was asked to react to pushback by teachers, who opposed the idea that education should be commercialized. His response: education is already commercial, even in places like Germany (where it is free) because taxpayer money pays 12,000 Euros per year, per child, to fund it. In his vision, the public education in the morning will be complemented by online private tutoring in the afternoon.

GoStudent offers an interesting case to think about scale. For startups, scale is everything. Unlike small businesses, they raise capital on the promise that they can disrupt things and grab the market. A startup pitch to an investor invariably includes many ideas about scale. How big is the market? How can we frame the opportunity in a smart way, to maximize its potential? What will it take to dominate the market? How long will it take to get there? How profitable will it be? Questions, that are designed to guide all business decisions. It is only from this logic, that we can understand the answers offered by GoStudent's founder. He claims that public schools are not providing enough knowledge, and that there is a considerable market for online tutoring to fill the gap. Why would he mention the 12,000 Euros we pay in taxes for a year of schooling for a child? It could be a call to arms for taxpayers, to demand less spending on public schools, and more for private tutoring.

Playing With Fire

Here is why I think GoStudent is a dangerous proposition, and how this relates to the theme of this chapter: scale. Earlier, I wrote about the gravitational pull of bad numbers (see Story #19). GoStudent feeds on bad numbers, to serve some of our darkest instincts when it comes to education. Their central claim is that public schools are doing a poor job at feeding knowledge to our children. The only way I can make that claim work, is if I rephrase this claim to mean that our children are not learning enough compared to others. It brings to mind a dystopian image of children around the world, competing to outdo one another.

In a GoStudent world, parents everywhere are in a race to the top. A race in which they compete by cramming as much tutoring into their children as money can buy, in the hope that they come out on top. This is where the bad numbers come into play. GoStudent plays into a system that makes children compete on standardized skills that are easy to measure (like maths, or grammar). Then, we rank our children in a global race to the top. All this is very problematic. What is left unsaid, is that this is a race rigged very much in favor of children of the rich and educated. What is also left unsaid is that in countries like Germany, we treat education as a public good, that should be available to everyone, on equal terms. What is left unsaid is that young people should have a say about their schooling. And, what is left unsaid is that parents buying their children private tutoring in the afternoon to gain an edge over others, are less likely to get involved in making public schools better for everyone.

In short, in a country like Germany, that despite a free education system struggles to provide equal opportunity and inclusion, GoStudent is set to only deepen divides and inequities.

Tweaking for Good

This chapter showed how we can manipulate scale for good. Scale, of course, is a neutral word, that may refer to the pursuit of growth, or a scientific truth. Framing and reframing the world around us envisions a future, in which those who were considered weak and powerless in the past, take charge and create new answers. Our social imagination (see Story #7). Dorica Dan used scale creatively to reframe the singular needs of her daughter Oana into a mission to build a care system fit to serve a million people suffering rare diseases. Rebuilding the world around her one child, helped her see what could empower the many. They went on to bring medical professionals, other families, patients, and researchers on board. And by replicating this caring one-to-one relationship, she built a movement in which other patients like Oana oversee the government's program for rare diseases (see Story #20). There is no doubt that Dorica wants to go big, but her idea of bigness moves at the speed of empowerment. Her idea of success is to let every patient create their own care experience, and contribute to the design of the whole system.

Rosanne's organization, Community Solutions, was designed for scale. Built for Zero is a national program to end homelessness in America (see Story #21). It is the result of a constant reframing of the problem, inspired by decades of hands-on work with homeless people. The program is at once visionary, and technocratic: Built for Zero prescribes a discipline of counting people, understanding their needs, and solving their individual cases. Community Solutions doesn't put the homeless in charge of achieving these results. Instead, it is a societal effort to free people of an inhuman condition. That tactic would not make sense in Brownsville, where the goal was never to fix things for people. Here, scale has a different meaning. United for Brownsville is a racial equity program first, building on a long tradition of community activism and self-governance going back to the 1960s. When people take charge, holding public services accountable, it is as much about improving services, as it is about levelling historic inequities of power.

Not So Fast, Please

How we approach time matters as we practice scale. On the one hand, Rosanne and Dorica are impatient, pushing hard to grow their national programs. On the other hand, they both appear to be eternally patient when it comes to building the human relationships that will empower people to take charge. It is easy to see how doing one without the other would be more convenient. That's how shelters that service, rather than end, homelessness come about. What motivates movements to engage at all these different scales, and speeds, is their sensibility for the full journey of empowerment within a larger system.

What motivates movements to engage at all these different scales, and speeds, is a deep sensibility for the full journey of empowerment within a larger system.

Startups, like GoStudent, often pick the path that narrowly suits their mission and desire for speed. They are the symptoms of a Fast Lane, in which companies pick the easy to scale, commercially viable parts of our systems for 'disruption'. They ask, "Why get involved in the messy journey to empowerment by improving public schools, creating places for equity or inclusion, or empower young people—when you can sell tutoring to their parents?” As they travel down that path, they risk doing more harm than good. Ride-hailing apps like Uber claimed to offer a convenient fix, but ended up causing traffic jams, and sucking passengers and money out of our public transport systems. If Dorica had pursued her cause like GoStudent, she might have raised funds to develop a premium healthcare offering, tailored to the needs of wealthy rare disease patients.

Empowering One AND A Million

Over the past decade, I have thought a lot about Brownsville. Our work with Citymart (see Story #14) was in some ways similar to Built for Zero. We wanted to find the simplest intervention that could achieve a transformative result. And like Built for Zero, we developed at a professional, fairly technocratic solution. This allowed us to quickly scale our approach to 135 cities around the world in just ten years. And yet, I always worried that whilst our approach could spread fast and wide, officials could also choose to stop using it. In Brownsville, I was observing the opposite. In the first ten years, the community mostly organized itself, built trust, and came up with a plan. Then, people took the reins to make things work for them, holding public services to account. No one could take that away.

For a long time, I considered these two scales to be a choice to be made. Should I stay patiently in one place, and provide the permanence that could allow a community to step up and find its way to demanding more from public procurement? Families in Brownsville, holding Early Intervention to account, are a better solution than relying on officials to adopt best practices. And yet, it is also true that it took more than ten years for the people of Brownsville to get to this point. By comparison, it took just seven years for Built for Zero to end chronic homelessness in fourteen cities. The Slow Lane shows us, how powerful it is to do both. This is difficult, especially in a world where funders and investors have a clear preference for either picking the fast and big game, or go slow and deep.

Dorica and Rosanne show us how we can refuse to accept this choice. They are building a highway of empowerment from the deep, one-to-one relationship all the way up, to the corridors of power.

Creative Scales

When Dorica connected the illness of one to the needs of a million, she practiced scale. Her reframing did not, though, manage to solve the problem that no one knew that they had such a rare disease. She responded to this lack of information by building resources to direct patients to her organization. By training doctors and journalists, she made it easier for people to discover her organization and raise their hand for support. And with NoRo, the pilot rare disease center they built, they created a space to show what the future can hold if patients, care professionals, and families work together in new ways. Like Rosanne's Prince George Hotel, the physical space inspired people to think differently.

On the ground, there is no one solution to solve homelessness.  Each case required a different response. Recognizing this, Community Solutions, designed Built for Zero as a learning network for experimentation. Instead of prescribing solutions, Built for Zero encourages local teams to be creative. They simply do what it takes, to get a person quickly out of homelessness. Real-time data helps people see what works, and develop good ideas further. Practitioners across all cities in the network then share their experiences, building on each other's experiments.

Back to School

What matters most when we practice scale, is a clear sense of who we are solving for. GoStudent solves for the very narrow needs of investors. It targets parents who want to elevate their children above others, forcing everyone else to do the same. Wrapped in an easy-to-use app, it may well meet investor's expectations, even if it ends up feeding on the anxieties of families. Young people and professional educators seem to have no real say in the matter.

Simon Köhl is building quite a different type of education technology. He tells me how classrooms in Germany struggle to meet the needs of children from socially and culturally diverse backgrounds, and with special needs. In Germany, 453,000 high school students are both poor and experience problems in school. Simon's approach to closing these learning gaps was to build a technology platform, Serlo, much like Wikipedia, on which teachers and students collaborate to curate customized learning experiences. Learning with Serlo empowers both students and teachers. Students are more actively involved in the classroom, participate in discussion, and contribute to enriching the learning experience. Teachers, for their part, become facilitators helping students personalize learning content and engage in discussion. By 2020, ten years after starting Serlo as a high school student, 1,500,000 students used the platform every month. Serlo also helps the work of other non-profit organizations that want to close the learning gap. Like chancenwerk, where students first receive tutoring, and then offer tutoring to younger students in return. Serlo is run by seventy volunteers who build technology, partnerships, and provide support, Serlo's annual budget was 349,000 Euros. That's roughly 0.1% of GoStudent's latest investment round.


I hope you enjoyed this chapter on scale. The next chapter will be about the rich and complicated relationship of the Slow Lane with data and technology.