marcus westbury

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The problem of scale

February 23rd, 2009 by marcus

I am writing this on the train from Sydney to Newcastle on my phone as my laptop is dead and in need of charging…

Returning from Newcastle after a very successful launch weekend for the renew Newcastle project, I’ve started to reflect on some of the larger policy questions. In part this is inspired by a larger series of thoughts that have been bubbling around in my head for a while now. In part it is the result of being part of the Creative Australia deliberation process that is going on at the moment.

Increasingly I am convinced that the major challenge of cultural policy and of city planning is how to cope with activity at a variety of scales. A key legacy of the era of globalization and neo-liberalism is that we have fostered a culture of scale. We’ve allowed capital to flow, construction to take place and initiative to be generated on massive scales that were never possible before. Indeed, until we manage to invent a means to travel off the globe cheaply and reliably globalization is a big a scale to facilitate as we are likely to get.

One of the unintended consequences of this is that the systems that we have designed to work at the large scale often fail at the small one.

It is perfectly reasonable to ask a lot of people and companies whose actions will have great consequences, who have access to vast amounts of capital and who stand to and expect to gain a great deal.

We have designed a whole series of systems with this in mind. As anyone who has ever hit the compliance costs involved in doing anything with limited capital can attest, the result is a classic example of the law of unintended consequences.

In part we are stuck in a bad feedback loop. Take any one of a number of examples from liquor licensing through to development controls through to the regulation of space and activity. As communities have become often justly concerned by inappropriate activity at a large scale, or regulators have attempted to establish guidelines to ensure that safety, equity and accessibility are enforced at the large scale, the result is often the death community initiative and grass roots enterprise.

The paradox is that the effect is the worst outcome for communities. Only those with capital and the ability and expertise are able to operate in such an environment. Those with limited capital – from my experiences recently this included artists, community groups and modest enterprises – are those who are excluded while the multinationals of the world receive an even greater relative advantage from their access to capital and expertise.

So what is the solution? Ultimately, it comes down to the idea that regulation must be proportionate to risk and scale. A five hundred dollar project should never have to pay a five thousand dollar compliance cost designed for a five hundred thousand dollar development. Strategies should allow for the short term and the flexible, the small scale and temporary.

The alternative is a world where bland multinationals will always triumph over imagination, innovation, and experimentation.

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21 responses so far ↓

  • 1 boz Feb 24, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    right on, marcus. licenses and insurance have caused many small projects to collapse, or not even start. public policy has assumed that communities of people have no common sense and do not watch out for each other.

  • 2 Emma Fitzpatrick Feb 24, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    This is very true. I received a public arts grant in 2007 to run a project in Adelaide and spent as half as much money on public liability insurance as I received for a years work…. to put two vending machines in public spots for a week.
    My cautious friend regularly doubles his independent (student) film-making costs to get the minimum liability insurance as well. The result is that the insurance companies are the only ones making a profit from no budget art projects and those funded by arts grants. I wonder if insurance companies would pay out at all in the off chance of some random art related injury? — and if artists would have the resources to fight them if they didn’t pay?
    Artists are increasing being pimped and exploited by the systems that they try to work within in order to be seen… The funding/grants maze set out by art funding bodies/institutions is increasingly arduous to navigate and to acquit, because of a perceived need to be accountable. This sinks the artist even deeper into administrative tasks that steal time and money that could be used to make art…
    Some grants are going begging for lack of applicants…(travel, overseas artist residences)
    Why? Because artists have to work to eat and have a place to live- these costs keep rising… the dole is increasingly hard to get/sustain (very different from the 70’s, 80’s 90’s) and impossible to live off… so they move out of brainless work into better paid positions that are more demanding and it sucks all of the time and energy out of them.
    I figure this is the reason why so many artists are taking matters into their own hands- hence the rise of guerilla art in all its forms… and installing art without permission in public spaces.. and the use of blogs, rather than galleries to showcase work.
    The plus side of this is the possibility of recognition and an audience for artists… without the headache of admin..
    The minus side is that artists STILL don’t get paid… and their work and ideas are increasingly vulnerable to poaching from other parties such as advertising…and other private profiteers who make merch…and who then make a profit from it.
    So the big question is how to protect artists and get them some money?
    (any suggestions very welcome)
    I’m trying to come to terms with this as an artist who is now a high school art teacher… in order to guide my students towards an outlet for their own work in the future….

  • 3 kath melbourne Feb 24, 2009 at 6:56 pm

    I agree to a degree of scale, it makes sense particularly if people can show some common sense and are aware of their responsibilities to public safety, to their neighbours and to human life. Local government are utilising this scale all the time.We do at Marrickville Council where i manage the arts and cultural stuff..

    Unfortunately those with the least experience of managing these projects/spaces are often (but not always) those with little cash and who rely on unskilled volunteers to help out. It means that the risk is increased, even on the small scale. I think local gov can play a brilliant role on supporting action on a local level. people just need to realise that things move slowly in this world.

    Hey Marcus, you still do strike me as someone who could handle an opinion that is different to your own. I hope that you are as you read the below…

    Without sounding too unkind and too blunt … and perhaps i will not be too popular… I think maybe you are exagerating more than a little when you say it’s your solution or “The alternative is a world where bland multinationals will always triumph over imagination, innovation, and experimentation.”

    … it sounds a bit too much like fear mongering for my liking; and that’s something i can’t buy into, on either end of the political spectrum.

    I think what you are pushing for in Newcastle is really admirable, and i wish i had more time to be more involved and to check out it’s relevance to what we are planning with the old industrial precincts.


  • 4 Ian Milliss Feb 24, 2009 at 8:04 pm

    Call me paranoid but there are quite a few examples where the consequences are not unintended, where large corprations support regulation that only they can afford to comply with in order to force all the small players out of the market. A perfect example is the recent introduction in the US of child product safety laws for toys where every component of a toy needed to be tested for lead content. There is apparently only one known instance of a child being killed by lead poisoning from a toy but old toys and childrens books are now prohibited from sale even by collectors. Only Mattel and similar global companies can afford the cost of compliance and the majority of small and amateur US toy manufacturers are now being forcibly closed down. Lots about it here

    To put this into perspective, think what would happen if every artist’s studio really complied with all OH&S standards – no unchecked electrical leads, mandatory industrial quality fume and dust extraction, no home studios, only in industrial zones, etc etc. I suppose this is what you are running into in Hunter St, Marcus?

    For all capitalism’s propaganda about freedom, innovation, etc the last thing corporations want is individual innovation and adaptation that they can’t control, that is why most of them even attempt to legally stop you from repairing their products when they break by design.

  • 5 Delores Foxtonfinn Feb 24, 2009 at 9:36 pm

    I think we need to lobby for some kind of “enter at own risk” style of legislation, similar to the good samaritan legislation that already exists. These creative projects always start out with the very best of intentions so why couldn’t we benefit from a similar type of legal protection?

  • 6 Dan Cass Feb 24, 2009 at 10:29 pm

    So so true, Marcus.

    While the boring CPRS nonesense is taking up all the mainstream media space, the useful climate debates are bubbling away on the periphery and one of the key issues is what you call ‘scale’.

    Relocalisation with a is the buzz word to track – eg Post Carbon Institute & TransitionTowns.

    You should see an old classic on ecological economics by E.F. Schumacher, called ‘Small is Beautiful’.

    Some of the most interesting ecological critique is now outside the mainstream environment movement – not just small is beautiful, slow too and generally ‘refusing’ to be part of the spectacle of ‘debate’…

  • 7 feargus Feb 25, 2009 at 12:08 am

    I think we all have to return to the space where we just decide to get on with it…whatever it might be. Yes there are rules, regs, and compliance out the wahoo – if u want to engage. We have to open ourselves up to the idea that really, in most cases, u can just try it on, and u will probably get away with it.

    U don’t have to COMPLY until someone asks you to…and even then u can still choose not to. What’s the worst that is going to happen? The worst is that the WORRIER will create a situation where u have to stop what u r doing now, and move on to the next thing – is this not a dynamic that our generation is now quite familiar with? (be it in the realms of work, housing, relationships, etc)

    And this is particularly relevant when we r considering projects that r done at the smaller end of the scale. Smaller things can generally happen and pass without notice. The world we live is a busy place, people are wrapped up in their own shit, and generally don’t notice things that aren’t right in front of them. The probability game says that u will get away with it most of the time, and the times that u don’t well…

    It’s interesting to note the things that we do that we don’t worry about. To take an example that we r all probably familiar with – staying up late, making too much noise, and bothering those around us. Most of the time we don’t hear from those we have bothered. On the odd occasion when we do, we apologise, they accept our apology, and the world moves on. We are non-compliant in many ways every day, in ways that we don’t even give a second thought, and the vast majority of the time we get away with it, and the world moves on.

    I am the president of a local drama group. We found out recently that the public liability insurance policy we thought we were covered by (through the local chamber of commerce) did not actually cover us. We had not been covered ever. Did it matter? No. Did the shows that we did still happen? Yes. Did we have mishaps? Yes. Did those problems just get dealt with, without reference to a process of insurance claims? Yes.

    The committee, once they found out we were not covered decided to take out our own insurance policy ($800+ per annum). The majority wanted it, so that’s democracy, and we took out a policy. If something happens in the future will we claim? I doubt it. If we did put in a claim would it be paid out? I doubt it.

    Break what we r all doing at the mo’ down and it all starts to get a bit silly. In my opinion what is happening is that we r all choosing to COMPLY with the rules because that’s what we think we should do. Would anyone get upset if we didn’t? Has anyone asked the Berry Drama Group (in 10 years of activity, with around 20 productions under out belt, with an average audience of 250 per production, and with an average of 15 people involved in each production) “do u have public liability insurance?” 1 person did (an audience member after a show where we had some dodgy platforms constructed to raise the seating levels for the audience) Could we have just lied and said yes and that one person would have been satisfied? U betya.

    I guess my point is this – we r just as much a player in the whole COMPLIANCE shenanigans as those who seek to impose the rules, regs, forms and whatever. We could just ignore it, get on with what we r doing, and I don’t think itn would make one iotas difference.

    What it would mean is that we would assume all the risk associated with what we do. Are we up for that? I know I am.

    And i will add just a quick class analysis before i finish…i think this is a problem of the middle class. There would be plenty of small businesses around you (corner shops, flower shops, hairdressers, etc) that in no way meet all of their compliance issues, or indeed any of them. And the ruling class will only comply when they need to.

  • 8 Ian Milliss Feb 25, 2009 at 9:55 pm

    feargus, denial isn’t really a very effective strategy – as this artist has discovered
    The real point is that we need better ways of dealing with this eg why can’t groups simply sign up to some sort of government sponsored umbrella insurance-coverage-of-last-resort. In the new atmosphere universal market failure there must be renewed potential for that sort of government backed arrangement if only to make sure that all cultural initiatives don’t grind to a halt.

  • 9 feargus Feb 26, 2009 at 2:48 am

    Ok Ian u found once instance in the world where my position fucks up…i don’t think that means i am in denial.

    After all i did say that i am am prepared to take on all the risk.

  • 10 Ben Eltham Feb 26, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    Marcus, have you read The Black Swan yet? It strikes me that some of Taleb’s discussion on scalability will be of interest to you.

    Taleb points out that most types of random distribution are like a bell curve (let’s leave aside his statistical criticisms of bell curves for this post) – for instance, height, weight or IQ. taleb calls this “mediocristan”. But in many aspects of culture, this is not so – the effect of one outlier can be so large that it fundamentally unbalances the whole. So, for instance, the earnings of J.K. Rowling dwarf those of any 1000 random writers you could round up, in a way that even the fattest man in the world will not dwarf the weight of the other 999 random humans. Taleb calls this “extremistan” and it is very much a metaphor for the scalability of cultural pursuits.

    Similarly, Rosen’s superstar economics and Andersen’s Long Tail are both manifestations of scale in the cultural industries.

  • 11 marcus Feb 26, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    Catching up with the comments here… In reverse order…

    @Ben: I haven’t read the black swan book although i did listen to his “long now” podcast where he explicitly addressed what you are referring to. I thought it was interesting and has planted some seeds for an inivitably future argument about why digital distribution so dramtically changes the nature of cultural systems (zero reproduction cost). But must gather my thoughts some more on that…

    @Feargus and others who are adopting the “just get on with it anyway” approach, i am actually pretty sympathetic to that. There is no way in hell i’d be sitting here now if i’d played by the rules in the early days – would have killed off everything before i got started. However, while it happens, i don’t think it’s actually a solution to the structural problem nor is it something that is going be of much use for me to advocate. I think we need to reconfigure things so that the role of government at a certain level of scale is less about enforcement and more about assistance. I.e. not to tell you that you can’t but to ensure that you can. That would require a radicalyl different way of thinking though.

    @Kath. No i don’t mind the disagreements at all. Perhaps i’m exagerating a little – i’ve been known to do that on occasions but i don’t think it invalidates the core part of the discussion – which is that we have a problem where rules and compliance costs are perpetuating dominant forces and making it harder and harder for new voices to get a look in. I would say that in most cases this is an unintended consequence rather than a goal. You are right that inexperience can be a recipe for danger but inexperience is a prerequisite to experience and the place where most of us start. Also, lack of capital does not mean lack of experience or lack of awareness or lack of responsibility. See above, but i think we need to shift thinking from enforcement to enabling – particularly at the low capital end of the spectrum.

  • 12 Louise Duff Feb 26, 2009 at 8:43 pm

    Check out the poet, writer and farmer Wendell Berry’s book “the Turn of the Crank.” IN one essay, “Conserving Communities” Berry proposes seventeen rules that must be followed in order for a community to reach sustainability– defined in his own words as “to cohere, to flourish, and to last.” The connection between ecology and economics, which is at the root of the survival of the community, must be established. Berry says there are two political parties taking shape: the global economy party versus the local community party. The local community party has two objectives: to preserve ecological diversity and integrity, and to re-establish the principles of culture and ecology of local economies and local communities. The local community party has a vested interest in the survival of the environment and the community. The global economy party acts to exploit, undermine, and destroy both the environment and the community on the premise of profit. To reinforce itself, the local community party should follow various guidelines as outlined by Berry, for example, including local nature within the concept of community, keeping money circulating within the community, and building an economy based on cooperation. He emphasized the importance of regenerating local food and forestry economies to sustain the land and to sustain the people of the land. Establishing a sound local community affords protection against global economic and environmental dissolution.

  • 13 kath melbourne Feb 26, 2009 at 9:17 pm

    hey Marcus, i tried not to generalise… and i don’t think it disregards the debate… just maybe it’s about the communication of it so that people on both ends of the spectrum will listen; as certainly the solution will come from a collaboration involving both. Ee’ve had a hard week of being told that local government is the enemy … bless mainstream tv and a few presumptive others huh?
    I think it would be really essential to involve people on the other end of the spectrum in your thought making, artists seem to be banging down your door wanting to speak with you; i hope that you also have others in the community development sector, local government and perhaps even people in the attorney general’s office contributing to the conversation… although all those sectors are facing staffing freezes, pressures and cut backs in the same way that art is too.
    Let me know if you are in Sydney, happy to make some introductions, but i suspect you are probably networked up to your eyeballs already :)

  • 14 kath melbourne Feb 26, 2009 at 9:20 pm

    p.s- i think the decision to enable rather than enforce often happens on an individual level in my current field (you can probably guess which side of the fence i reside on)…. and we do what we can within the restrictions of what our responsibilities require of us…

  • 15 Ian Milliss Feb 27, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    kath, most people who believe local government is the enemy have come to that conclusion because they have had to deal with local government. The mass media is simply tapping into popular dissent.
    The wider issue here is the result of decades of right wing propaganda aimed at diminishing the role of government at every level that has left many areas government with nothing but a petty policing role, and not much of that even in areas where it was most needed eg banking.
    My experience of working as a consultant with local government has been one of substandard systems, obsessive and negative bureaucratic attitudes, defensiveness and hostility to the public and a rejection of even the mildest criticism. A lot of this comes from the fact that the majority of those working in councils have never worked any where else and so have drunk the kool-aid all their lives. They genuinely believe that by constant pettifogging they are doing a good job.
    And of course it is always easier for them to pick on the little guy than the big one, which is where this gets back to the problems faced by most arts initiatives.
    It will take a generational change within government bureaucracies, hopefully hastened by financial crisis infrastructure spending, to bring about the necessary cultural change within those organisations.
    Interestingly, not all government bureaucracies suffered the same cuts over the last few decades, nor did they develop the same negativity. The ACT mostly retained the benevolent government of the post war years with the result that one initiative was studio complexes funded by government but self managed by the resident artists, ANCA is one of the least publicised cultural initiatives in the country but a fantastic model for other places and proof that government can be supportive without being controlling.
    And feargus I do agree about taking on the risk yourself if you mean that we should all be able to agree to “enter at our own risk” if we wish, rather than have a bureaucrat decide that we should not be allowed to make our own decision.

  • 16 kath melbourne Feb 27, 2009 at 5:12 pm

    ;o i will try not to take it personally then

  • 17 kath melbourne Feb 27, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    ….particularly if my efforts to be helpful and of assistance to your cause are responded to in that way.

    geeze… no wonder people like me get turned into the people you just spoke about eh?…

  • 18 Ian Milliss Feb 27, 2009 at 6:07 pm

    kath, of course it’s not personal, I don’t know you, I’m just trying to describe the very negative experiences many artists (and others) have when dealing with councils. It often boils down to the fact that council’s almost never have the resources to actually assist projects even with a bit of advice or additional information about how they might comply. That doesn’t mean there are not many excellent people trying very hard to improve the situation, no doubt you are one of them, but you’d better get a thicker skin.

    Right now the best result is usually when authorities tacitly look the other way while non-compliant activities take place, all a bit like Claude Rains immortal line about Ricks Bar from Casablanca, “I’m shocked, shocked that gambling is going on in these premises!”. Marrickville Council will no doubt one day be shocked, shocked to discover there is graffiti in May Lane.

    Personally, I’d like to see all new councillors and council officers given a copy of Richard Florida’s “Rise of the Creative Class”, you would think it would be really old conventional wisdom by now yet still it seems most of them don’t get it.

  • 19 kath melbourne Feb 28, 2009 at 10:52 am

    Hi Ian… thanks for the life tip… and yes, if you in any way knew me you might back away from that statement regarding thick skin just slightly i think. :)

    But that said i am a big fan of old fashioned things like manners; with people don’t feel need to be used when dealing with people in government- maybe they forget that we are human beings and you are right, often working towards similiar goals.

    May Lane is an interesting example and i think we would be hard pressed try to “crack down” with such a community swell behind it, nor do we want to .

    I agree, sometimes it is better just to allow things to happen; even guerilla gardeners.

    Have a nice weekend.

  • 20 Feargus Feb 28, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    Ian, apologies for the expletive

    Marucs, grab a copy of the doco Garbage Warrior by Oliver Hodge. Covers a lot of what u r talking about here. Very interesting in that u get to follow a guy (architect/builder Michael Reynolds – sustainable housing visionary) through the whole process of getting something done about these sort of problems.

  • 21 Initiativism Aug 25, 2009 at 7:56 am

    […] Ultimately it is about a cultural policy approach that begins with thinking about the  viability of initiative at the smaller scale and that accumulates a cultural richness from a fertile ground of viable small scale things. As i’ve noted before, the viability of small scale initiative has been under assault from both the public and private sect…. […]