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  • Michael Mehaffy

We humans are modern masters at economies of scale and standardization – but here’s why we also need economies of PLACE and DIFFERENTIATION

Updated: Feb 4

The human project may depend on getting this relationship back into balance.



EDITOR'S NOTE: This post is one of a series meant to contribute to the discussion at our upcoming 60th International Making Cities Livable (IMCL) conference in Newport, RI USA (for more information: https://www.imcl.online/2024-newport)


Consider the lowly dandelion seed. Its genetic code is made of just four molecules – the same four molecules that make up your genetic code, and mine, and that of every other living thing.  The dandelion also puts out vast numbers of these seeds, as any child can tell you who has blown on a dandelion seed ball.

 

The vast quantities of seeds provide an economy of scale for the dandelion, as it uses an efficient and well-honed molecular mechanism to pump out millions of them routinely.  Its use of the same four molecules also provides a great economy of standardization, as is true for all other organisms.


Martin Cooper, inventor of an early cell phone, compares it with a newer phone.

We humans are also very good at exploiting economies of scale and standardization – especially in the “modern” era of about the last 200 years. We pump out vast numbers of efficiently standardized products, gaining enormous efficiencies as well from the sheer scale of production.  Consider that the first cell phones were cumbersome brick-like objects that cost thousands, and yet had little coverage or capability. Today’s phones cost a fraction of that, and yet they pack vast capabilities and processing power.

 

However, the dandelion doesn’t stop there. In addition to economies of scale and standardization, it – like all other organisms – also exploits economies of place and differentiation. That turns out to be key to their vast complexity, beauty, resilience and durability.

 

By comparison, it seems we humans still have some things to learn…

 

Consider what happens to a dandelion seed as it falls to the ground. It may or may not be well-adapted to that spot, the soil quality, moisture, and other factors. If it is well-adapted to the place, it will thrive, but if not, it will likely perish. Meanwhile, the dandelion has sent out vast numbers of other seeds, each slightly differentiated from the others. Some of these will be better-adapted, and will be more likely to thrive. They in turn will grow up to send out ever more seeds, gradually becoming more efficiently adapted to their place, and the advantages it confers.

 

These are the economies of place and differentiation, and they are crucial companions to the economies of scale and standardization. The well-adapted seeds find an economy in being in the right place, and being differentiated appropriately to it. The plant itself will also gradually differentiate, and colonize many other places to which they are increasingly well-adapted.

 

The sum total of this activity is the growth of ecological complexity, not only between the dandelions and their places, but between myriad other organisms and their interactions. Certain differentiated insects are well-adapted to eat the dandelion leaves, if they too are in the right place. Certain other differentiated microbes are well-adapted to live inside the insects... Certain locally differentiated birds thrive by eating the insects… And so on, and so on, all forming the interlocking web-network that is a vastly complex ecological system.

 

And the ecology thrives because there are economies of place and differentiation, as well as economies of scale and standardization.

 

It seems that individual cells also exploit these economies of place and differentiation, as well as scale and standardization. The reason a liver cell becomes a liver cell is not that it receives a centralized command, but that it senses its specific place within the evolving embryo, and it differentiates itself accordingly. It does this along with vast numbers of other cells, of course, operating at vast scales, and also all using standardized genetic components.

 

Consider now the way that we humans have been building our environments over the last century. Where we once adapted components to a place, and differentiated them according to climate, terrain, local culture and other factors, we now build identical buildings around the world, designed by (or influenced by) a handful of famous global “starchitects”. Or we develop nearly identical “tract house” subdivisions, using standardized “cookie-cutter” building plans, components, and financial mechanisms. 

 

It follows from this discussion that the problem is not the use of standardized components per se, or the construction of vast quantities per se. It is the failure to integrate the adaptation to place, or the ability to differentiate as needed. Indeed, economies of standardization and scale are invaluable aids to efficient and cost-effective building, just as they are to efficient and resource-conserving organisms and ecologies.

 

There was a great advantage to a Sears kit house, for example, arriving on a truck with its standardized parts – one of many that the company sent out via mail-order, and at attractive prices. The Sears houses still allowed the local builders and homeowners to select some of the materials, and make adaptations to their own unique needs (say, adding a dormer or bedroom). In fact, these buildings tended to evolve and adapt over time, becoming uniquely differentiated to their place and their users’ needs. (This was discussed very insightfully in Stewart Brand's excellent book, How Buildings Learn.)

 

There are similar combinations of economies in other sectors today. “Mass customization” allows products to become uniquely differentiated. Children can get Cabbage Patch dolls with uniquely differentiated facial features. Where once Henry Ford said that car buyers could get “any color so long as it’s black,” customers can now custom-order large numbers of car features, including colors, interiors, and other features.

 

These are modest innovations, to be sure – but they are a start. Yet in the case of buildings, we still seem to be getting the worst of both worlds – expensive custom-designed and built structures that still look the same everywhere. Innovations are coming, but painfully slowly.

 

Partly the problem is the entrenched ideology of the architectural profession, owing to a fateful embrace of mechanized, standardized architecture shortly after the turn of the 20th century. Instead of an architecture of place, we would have an architecture of time, and the future. Instead of an architecture of local differentiation, we would have the “International Style” – a globalized, homogenized environment that was meant to be more rational and cost-effective, more widely available for ordinary people, and therefore more humane.

 

Today, we can hardly call that project a success. But it’s important now to recognize the specific failures – and specifically, the failure to understand the economies of place and differentiation, alongside the economies of scale and standardization.  And it’s important now to accelerate the reforms, to build according to these insights, and according to a more ecological approach.

 

There is one more aspect to this discussion worth mentioning. Biological and ecological systems, combining economies of place and differentiation with economies of scale and standardization, are also wonderfully good at conserving and even renewing resources. Not only does the dandelion not deplete the soil on which it depends, but it – along with the insects, birds, microbes and other constituents of that ecosystem – actually builds up and improves that soil over time.

 

This is the secret to sustainability in biological systems, and the ability of ecosystems to persist for many thousands of years. They not only persist, they grow richer, more complex and more diverse – and often much more beautiful.       

 

Perhaps we too can learn this lesson.  Perhaps, instead of a “depletion economy” – one that depends upon digging, burning, consuming, contaminating and destroying – we can find a path to what we might call a “repletion economy” – one that is capable of regenerating, and even enriching, our natural and human resources.

 

Perhaps instead of degrading our built environment, our air and water quality, our climate, our soil, and our other critical resources, we can build a richer, more durable, more beautiful world. Perhaps that is the real wealth we should aim for, and the actual renaissance we may achieve. These natural systems give us important lessons in how to do so.  

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