Human Scale

On Friday, as part of the 2013 inciteXchange conference, I moderated a short Q&A following presentations by three captivating Philadelphia creatives. Organized around three very broad themes — food, clothing, and shelter — the conference brought together a diverse range of designers, entrepreneurs, and leaders from different sectors who are challenging conventions within their respective fields.


[ Andrew Dahlgren presents his research and knit lab projects ]

While watching presentations in the “clothing” segment by Andrew DahlgrenGabriel Mandujano, and Bob Trempe, I noted that each of their work in some way asserts the importance of addressing the human scale in terms of engaging individuals: whether to create intimate architectural interventions (Trempe), build a socially and environmentally sustainable laundry service business (Mandujano), or prototype a model for community supported manufacturing with locally organized knitting machine labs (Dahlgren).

Human scale. The words took on new meaning for me today somehow as I understood it in the three examples at the conference — and I immediately connected it to work my colleagues and I do in The Think Tank that has yet to be named, particularly in the Structures of Support project, which is absolutely about identifying the ways people build human-scaled, community-based networks of resources and support to live rich lives. Clearly, Ivan Illich, a guiding light in this research, was convinced that the industrial scale of our institutions and systems were greatly alienating us from ourselves, each other, and our environments. Ultimately, his insistence on tools for conviviality, those instruments, processes, and relationships that bring us closer together in an economy of mutuality,* was a call for living at the human scale.

I find the idea of the human scale very compelling and evocative now. It suggests a rightness of attitude toward each other and the world that just seems to resonate. When so many of our interactions with the systems around us feel so out of scale, out of reach, impersonal, and often inhumane, the human scale as an organizing motif might offer a powerful antidote.

* I owe my use of “economy of mutuality” to Paul Glover, another speaker at inciteXchange