Scalability - the mantra for sustainable social change

Setting out to make social change is good to hear but it is tough to actually get done. I haven't made any or for that matter actually have started doing anything big towards that but I have had opportunities to be part of or to contribute to multiple ventures/initiatives over the course of the last 4 years. Through these learning experiences I have come to realize the importance of two factors for making sustainable social change - persistence and scalability. A case in point is the TidyCity campaign which started in 2009 and which has been gaining ground and momentum over the past year or so.

I had once blogged about this campaign. For those who have missed that entry, it is a campaign which is focused on making a change in one specific aspect of our culture/society - To change the way people look at our public spaces, by instilling in them a sense of ownership for our common space, and to inspire them to actively keep these public spaces clean and beautiful. Currently this campaign is gaining ground and momentum in Trivandrum, Kerala. I don't see any reason why this wouldn't scale to multiple cities and multiple states, the way it is shaping up now.

The TidyCity team conducts weekly clean up activities around the city. The activities are targeted at getting the message across to the people who see the effort of the team and to inspire them to join the campaign or imbibe the message and spread the word.

I had started volunteering for the campaign during its early days but I couldn't keep up with the act of volunteering time on a weekly basis with my 24x7 schedule. I was worried that a lot of people would not be able to keep up with the frequency. However the persistence of the TidyCity team has proved me wrong. The team has been successfully conducting activities on almost every weekend since its inception barring a few exceptions. Now that is the persistence part of the story.

Last weekend TidyCity team conducted their first at-School-awareness-program at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Trivandrum. This was a major change in the direction of the campaign in that, this was an event which brought in the aspect of scalability. Direct awareness/inspirational programs would open up the possibility of increasing the number of campaigners and also of scaling up the reach of the campaign.

100 people volunteering every weekend would reach more people than 10 people volunteering every weekend. Likewise 100N would reach more people than 100 where N is an integer greater than 1. That is the simple math in scalability. To make sustainable change you have to bring in scalability into the picture. Scalability would take out the dependence of the success of a campaign on a few individuals. Scaling up could also bring up its own problems - like bureaucracy, inefficiency, loss of focus/passion etc. But the overall possibility to create sustainable change will improve manifold once the efforts are scalable.

When you are talking about sustainable change you mean change that can eventually reach 6 billion people. Note that systems themselves do not have to grow to enormous sizes for sustainable change, they could just be replicated if they so allow. If a person is serious about making change then he/she should definitely look at the scalability part of their efforts. If systems do not have means to grow or replicate then they would remain small personal projects creating changes in their own small local contexts. Not bad at all in any sense, but it would have been much better if it were scalable and sustainable.

In economics there is Stein's law, which says -- if something cannot go on forever, it will stop. :) What Herbert Stein was trying to say is that the only way processes can be sustained is by putting new ideas into it, time after time. Otherwise the process would end by itself. Initiatives such as what you have written about here also are subjected to this. Have to keep thinking about new ways to do the same, so as to sustain.

You explained it well Anoop. Even though the primary aim of Tidycity is to spread the awareness on anti-littering, on every attempt we try to gain more members and there by increasing our reach in the society.

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