Building Human-Scale Resilience

Most global investment strategy is planned through a network of proxies: governments invest in global institutions (like the World Bank and IMF), which in turn invest in other governments; or, governments invest in banks, through central banks, and they invest in other banks, or enterprises, sometimes partly or wholly state-owned, sometimes multinational… and the success of their work is measured in proxy values, like GDP—Gross Domestic Product. None of these levers of influence gives us direct access to the truth of human scale impact. So, we need to build a new framework for prioritizing information about that impact.


The straightforward way to get around the proxy problem is to listen to stakeholders. The challenge is achieving enough local contact, reliably enough, and persistently enough, to ensure that kind of value assessment keeps adding clarity. This is easier when we democratize—actually allow stakeholders to have a say in what happens with respect to the their own situation. We need new conceptual policy frames to identify risk areas and better assess whether policies and practices are making lived experience at the first level more resilient and more conducive to mutual thriving.

The role of GOOD economics

GOOD-based economic policy—generative economic investment strategy, rooted in an awareness of Generative Organic Optimization Demand—aims to privilege activities that expand the resource base, instead of depleting it. Investment in solar technology is generative, for example, where investment in tar-sands oil is degenerative; installation of expanded wind-energy capacity is generative, where mountaintop-removal coal mining is degenerative.

Outside of material resources (like fuel, technology and energy), social resources like education also follow the same logic. For instance, when major international bodies invest in the government apparatus of regimes that provide little substantive education opportunity but finance exploitation of public lands for oil or other mineral resources, they are devaluing their investment, from inception; when they focus on humanizing generative investments, like robust 21st-century education, they amplify the value of their investments.

The first point of contact

When we look at the value of resource-building investments at the human scale, we are talking about building, or undermining, essential operative resilience. Human-scale resilience refers to the first point of contact between ordinary people’s lives and the wider economic reality.

Buying milk is human-scale economics; commodified pricing of milk futures is not human-scale economics, but: what happens there affects many critical details of life at the human scale.

There is too much talk, at times, about subverting or inverting the policy-making structure, as if radical sudden change were somehow productive. And while we need to build human-scale efficacy and a presumption that policy should dignify all people into global institutions, and that is most efficiently done by reforming the existing framework—especially where we can build real democracy into the process—we can talk about removing the presumption that “first” means “at the top”.

Once again, the first point of contact between a person and the economy is not the making of policy or the invention of new financial instruments; it is where we live and breathe.

Perhaps most importantly for those in the business of making policy: resilience across the wider economic and political landscape, the stability of critical institutions and of nation states, cannot be achieved if human-scale resilience is in question. The frictions arising from widespread human-scale insecurity will inevitably erode the efficiencies on which the wider economic and political landscape depend for their own resilience.

Building human-scale resilience requires sound thinking about what kind of generative investments build humanizing social resources, at the human scale—in the immediate environment of real people living their lives organically as they do every day in the society in question. We can do this by first harmonizing GOOD-based economic analysis with the testimony of stakeholders and their least self-interested witnesses.

Tracing the Quipu & improving outcomes

Quipu-580x410The quipu was a device used by indigenous peoples across the territory of the Inca empire, for various purposes. The quipu was used to tell stories, to track the history of a family or a community, to provide ceremonial representations of creation stories, and to keep track of economic and political reality. The Inca, the emperor, used the quipu as a document, to keep track of tributes paid to him by communities and by tribal leaders, out to the periphery of his domain.

Because the quipu needed to correspond to facts on the ground, and because it was a sensitive document, in which the nature of political power was shaped and negotiated, the Inca himself did not directly oversee the creation of these cultural tools. He had tax agents that created their own quipus, as they traveled, building a one-of-a-kind code that in many cases only they could decipher. This allowed them to transfer both knowledge and power to their children, and so to decentralize power, through the very instrument designed to centralize power.

We now have the ability, through the communications technologies that have knit our global civilization together, to visit places far from our own homes, without traveling to them, and to gather and share information, across the planet. This should allow us to assimilate information from local points of interest, across the full fabric of human society, and to do so in a way that allows each local participant to provide not only data, but also the qualifying analysis that helps us to understand how the information represents real value, at the first level, where the economy is the stuff of lived experience, at the human scale.

Over the years, we have initiated various iterations of an experimental Quipu project, aimed at producing this kind of direct participation by individuals and communities in the analysis that affects them. There are many technical challenges to achieving this, but as we work to build a more socially responsible, interactive framework for direct citizen participation in more and more areas of public policy, we must keep in mind that the human scale experience is where resilience matters most and that we can, if we are thoughtful and open to new ideas, begin to see our interactions as part of a complex, locally coded fabric of values.

Are we human-scale resilient or not?

Moving toward that kind of evaluation will disrupt the standard thinking about certain kinds of economic value considerations. There will be those who disagree about whether a social program or the removal of a business regulation is a better measure of essential operative resilience in a given community.

Understanding whether we are, in fact, human-scale resilient, in this or that city, region or country, will require a rethinking of many old assumptions. The key has to be close attention to the detail of lived human experience, and a willingness to hear from the best informed witnesses, the people experiencing the outcomes, where they live and breathe.

We need to actively consider how best to reform our policy priorities, to ensure our investments are always generative and never degenerative of human-scale resilience—generative resource access at the human scale. 2015 should be a year devoted to building this awareness, having this conversation, and proposing comprehensive schematic reforms to global development priorities.

A version of this article was originally published October 21, 2013, through Geoversiv. This updated version adds the quipu concept to this proposal for an assessment of essential operative resilience at the first point of human interaction with the measurable economy. The article “Uplift Locally to Solve Globally” lays out a series of generative reinforcements that are needed to build human-scale resilience in any given situation. 


Human-scale resilience is a key consideration in the ACCESS to GOOD Project. We can build a smarter society, if we…

  • learn to do business without generating climate damage,
  • evolve a financial sector that routinely generates climate value,
  • ensure the sustainability of vital ecosystems and of our food supply system, and
  • operate in a way that expands human dignity while getting all of this right.

For a look at how to build human-scale resilience:

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