What Ever Happened To Small Is Beautiful?

January 5, 2008

According to market predictions see here Financial Times and TODAYonline The future belongs very much to big juggernaut firms, well I am sorry. I cannot buy into that logic. Only because if one really takes the trouble to peruse the landscape of winners and losers in the last 4,000 years. Most of the big have gone the way of the dinosaurs – hey, I got news for you, they didn’t half make it –  not the Greeks, not even the Roman Empire neither did the Ancient Chinese – the same goes for Communism – remember Enron? What about Arthur Anderson, Worldcom, Panam and so on, the list of the deader than dead goes on and on. Question: Does God reside in the big or small?

(Italics As This Was Narrated In A Conversation During A Cycling Session)

These days big is fast becoming a dirty word in certain quarters, a liability even. Not so long ago, no conversation about innovation would be complete without recounting the story of 3M inventor Art Fry’s eureka moment that led to the Post-it Note. Today, that tale, which verges on the staid, trite and cliche, has almost universally lost its zinger replaced by the story of the iPod, Apple’s omnipresent icon of design.

It should come as little surprise, then, that Apple tops the BusinessWeek-Boston Consulting Group’s list of the World’s Most Innovative Companies for the third year in a row. That sort of staying power speaks volumes about the sort of innovation that matters today.  

Unlike the Post-it narrative, which is all about the story of juggernaut big businesses – the iPod is all about the God of small, don’t forget where it all started, in a garage and in rooms where clothes go to die – the first computer that rolled out in the late 70’s looked like dorky dinky toys which their creators claim would increase office productivity, but induced migraine no end – fast forward 40 odd years and for the first time small isn’t just beautiful it’s the way to go – it a cogent case that epitomizes today’s innovation sensibilities. These includes everything that goes with the whole idea of being dwarfish, having a lower profile so that it can hug the terrain and be a moving target, the agility and speed that comes with being compact. The responsiveness and ability to shift gears rapidly to changing conditions. All these are reflected very much in the logic of being small.

I am not a big fan of big firms, hyper markets, mega malls or churches who regularly spend millions building shopping malls – one of the problems associated with bigness shows up only to evidently in how size can often become a menace – not only business wise but socially as well. All of us have seen only too clearly what happens when oligarchies get so big that they start to diversify into all sorts of mind numbing Byzantine mega projects in the name of economic progress – town councils that think that they should moonlight as Warren Buffet – pastors who get so delusional, they actually believe Jesus ask them to play Donald Trump – charities that get so out of touch with reality, they cease completely to be charitable in every sense of the word – sure they’re making money – sure, they’re even maximizing opportunities – and probably getting a good return on their investments, but what happened to the focus, philosophy and raison of their existence? Hello, what happened to the goal?

What’s the real cost when they grow so big that they ultimately lose sight of why they were even created in the first place? Did Jesus pull into a Jerusalem in a gulf stream private jet or did he ride a donkey? Are town councils supposed to looking into ways and means to enhance the quality of life for citizens? Or should they be preoccupied with the whole idea of maximizing their returns on investments? Are mega state owned corporations supposed to be defined by how many small enterprises they can start up or is it just a case of chasing a few percentage points.

That’s the problem with being big. After a while the whole idea just gets so conflated, that big becomes the end rather than the means to serve a greater end. Like communism that started off as a great experiment to uplift the livelihood of millions, it was despite its ideological flaws noble and even good, but it too became a victim of bigness and with it, walls, snipers and rotweillers crept into the picture.

That’s the whole problem with big firms, big churches and big anything. After a while the big gets so big, it squeezes out the good currency. Instead of it serving people and enhancing their quality of life, it just degenerates into some mindless mantra of chasing something that is so far off from the original goal.

That I am reminded may be an economic success, but in every practical term of the word it is still a social menace as it creates gross inequalities. Because big means, it has the ability to monopolize, dominate and control, it was the capacity to exact a powerful leverage on society. For example the price of electricity determines the price of hundreds of goods and services. Religion determines very much how you will treat others. That degree of being able to change determines whether one is either just existing or living, enjoying life or just languishing, human or an simply an ant.

It brings into start focus the whole idea of pursuing size for the sake of size. The issues relating to what constitutes ‘real’ growth should never be mindlessly pursued. We all know what happens when big business, big churches and big anything is given free rein – the environment suffers, people and planet have to pick up the pieces. The challenge for leaders these days to regularly keep big small by continually questioning the goal – what is it all for? Are we doing the things that serves the goal? Or has the means taken over the goal?

Asking these sort of questions goes a long way towards supplying the logic; for instance what’s the point of investing X billion in Y company somewhere in the yodeling Alps in a bank that used to bankroll Adolf Hitler and his motley crew if all it does is produce Z yield and does absolutely nothing to spawn local innovation and creativity? In the final analysis, that’s just a travesty of rational logic and a waste of opportunity cost – that’s the real problem with bigness, it gets so big that after a while big power tends to develop into a government in itself.

Big power needs to be decentralized. It should be broken up and scattered into many small stakeholders so that the fortunes of the people will not be solely dependent on the whim or caprice of only a few. The fact that these select few may even be imminently qualified not the issue or that they may even be socially minded is irrelevant. That is precisely the philosophy of seeing the virtue of small – Society needs the small stake holders, if it is to progress holistically, but there is an increasing tendency to focus on practical utility of pursuing the big to the exclusion of everything else related to the small. This leads to a new ‘post-biggie’ culture in which every oligarchy, from statutory boards to town councils treat everything as an opportunity for mindless wealth creation and a saleable commodity; Result: society risks losing many of the benefits that these oligarchies were originally develop to address. 

If the history of innovation and creativity tells us anything from the examples of silicon valley and the numerous inventions that emerged from garages where kids were struggling with rubber bands and super glue, it is simply this: real wealth can only come when the big empower the multitude of the small to nurture their dreams – not for the big to grow bigger and bigger at the expense of the small, after all did they ever stop and ask, how the hell did they get so big in the first place?

You go figure that out. My money is on the small any day. You don’t believe me? Let’s compete! The bigger they are, the harder, they fall…just make sure, you remember to get out of the way…….timbeeeeeeeeeer!


Darkness 2008 / Harphoon / Astro Boy – The Brotherhood Press

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2 Responses to “What Ever Happened To Small Is Beautiful?”

  1. […] Young PAP as your stepping stone to Parliament? – Think HappinesS: Let Judges Decide – Just Stuff: What Ever Happened To Small Is Beautiful? – Endoh Pure Ranting Room: So… civil servants had it easy? – The Online Citizen: Al Jazeera talks […]

  2. guppy said

    I am in small as well, but I am so small sometimes, I want to be big and sometimes when I get too big on the things I dont want to get big on like my weight, I wish, I was small. 🙂

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