Connected and Small: Beautifully Robust

What is the meaning of democracy, freedom, human dignity, standard of living, self-realization, fulfillment? Is it a matter of goods, or of people? Of course it is a matter of people. But people can be themselves only in small comprehensible groups. 

E.F. Schumacher – Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered

Technology infrastructure is transforming with the advent of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), connecting individual micro-services with each other. API connections enable the removing, re-creating, and re-inserting of smallest-viable components in a system, instead of the development of difficult-to-modify monoliths.

Small teams can develop and ship products quickly, without running suggested changes up a chain of command, as long as they are following the established guidelines of their macro environment and play nice with other teams.

Local government can be more responsive to the immediate needs and problems of individual citizens than national ones with huge electorates. The comprehensibility of groups is crucial to the individual’s feeling of belonging and engagement. However, municipalities don’t have the resources to support globally viable armies or build massive infrastructures projects on their own; national governments aren’t discardable.

British anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed that groups of greater than 150 (Dunbar’s Number) begin to lose the social legibility that those of 150 & fewer possess. The power of small, comprehensible groups is multiplied when they are appropriately joined to other groups and super-groups. API & control layers both enable and limit the abilities of small groups.

Retired general Stanley McChrystal explores the interplay between small groups and massively resourced organizations in Team of Teams. McChrystal helped construct an API layer between small field teams, commanders, and the middle layers of leviathan military bureaucracies. Building an adaptive system that can push decisions as far down as the organization’s risk tolerance will accept is a dance that must be driven from the top, explicitly giving permission for information to flow and power to be re-stacked.

Visa, Apache, and Emilia Romagna are examples of groups that play with different ways of networking the small, enabling parts to feel engaged with a powerful whole. Technologies such as cloud computing, robotics, distributed power generation, low-cost sensors, among others are generating an enormous variety of options for weaving the small into the big (and the other smalls).