The story

This story came out of our ‘Mountain Trail’ learning journey on Scaling landscape restoration for systemic impact. For more context on this, read this story.  

Our partners have made incredible progress in their landscapes over the past 5-10 years, bringing together landscape stakeholders, creating common visions, and building trust. For example, Wij.land has grown its farmer’s network in the Netherlands to over 200 farmers and catalysing a movement of people connecting to their landscape. Living Lands, in the Baviaanskloof-Langkloof landscape in South Africa, have supported and created over 100 jobs with their restoration work and regenerative businesses, and have consistently built up trust in the landscape since 2014. Now, the time seems ripe to think about scaling. Right?

Seerp Wigboldus, Researcher at Wageningen University, brought us a critical reflection on this phenomenon of “scaling as a logical next step”. Seerp did a PhD on rethinking the idea and practice of scaling innovations for development and progress. He explained that this idea of scaling is strongly intertwined with our society. When something works, it seems almost inevitable to scale it up, as the dominant idea is that ‘more is always better’. But in the context of landscape restoration, is the word scaling even appropriate? Aren’t we adopting a philosophy of eternal growth that may run counter to our goals and vision for our landscapes?

The world at large, and particularly the sector we are in, is demanding scale – there is a strong call for bigger, faster, better impact. Quite simply, we don’t have a choice but to scale! – Liz Metcalfe, Living Lands

A ‘solution’ for everything

A term often coupled with scaling is solutions. Seerp points out that we see this in the energy transition, where scaling up the application of electric cars, wind turbines or solar panels is seen as the solution. In the climate change field, CO2 capture is seen as the solution, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw the same rhetoric for vaccines.

We have to be careful when to call something a solution, however. A challenge with the word ‘solution’ is that it tends to oversimplify things. It brings a tendency towards blueprint approaches. A consequence of this can be that we lose diversity and creativity when we select solutions to scale. For example, when a pilot is successful, we tend to automatically move on to scaling it. Why wouldn’t we instead do more pilots? This would keep us creative and may bring more innovations.

Look around you and you will see it everywhere: claims of having the ‘solutions’. And these, should of course, ‘be massively scaled’. Solutions can only be called this way after they solved some challenge for someone, somewhere. Predefining something as a ‘solution’ is no more than marketing.” – Seerp Wigboldus

The tendency towards scaling and uniformity also brings risks in terms of power dynamics. The scaled-up innovations tend to be created or bought by the more powerful institutions, which have more resources for research and development.

We never scale in isolation 

Scaling essentially means getting more of the same. But what we don’t always realise, is that this also means getting less of something else. Wij.land, for example, experiences this with the growth of their farmer’s network. The more farmers join, the more they’re losing some of the depth of relationships that they used to have.

“One of the most important and difficult aspects we encountered in scaling is how we can keep the slowly built trust and ‘family feeling’ with partners and farmers.” – Rosa Vendel, Wij.land, Dutch Peat Meadows

We don’t scale in a vacuum. We live in a constantly scaling world; once you start tugging on one thread, you’ll find it’s interconnected with many other elements. The tricky part, however, is that often the negative effects only become apparent on a certain scale. When 10 farmers are doing something, such as using certain water resources, that may be great, but when 100 farmers are doing that, there may be negative consequences to that.

Sometimes, instead of becoming bigger, things need to become more balanced. When something doesn’t work, we need to scale it down. The goal is then to bring back proportionality.

Do you know what are you scaling? When you scale, you scale both the positive but also the negative. Have we looked carefully at what negative elements will also be scaled up in the process?” – Liz Metcalfe, Living Lands, South Africa

So, when we plan on scaling something, we should be aware of what we may lose and what side effects could occur from it. But then what? Shouldn’t we scale at all when we cannot guarantee it has no side effects of loss or reduction of quality?

Learning from nature, we could argue that yes, we can scale, as long as we contribute to a resilient system. Nature doesn’t scale solutions. The growth and abundance that we find in nature, are rather based on the scaling of certain principles that ensure a resilient system. By adopting these principles, we make sure that we’re not promoting single solutions at the expense of something else. That we are building a balanced system in which all life can thrive. Read about five principles to follow for a resilient system and how to apply them in this follow-up story.

Written by Roos van der Deijl, with input from a presentation by Seerp Wigboldus (watch here). Cover photo: Baviaanskloof woman with bushcutters – Photo by Liesl le Roux.

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