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A collection of posts relevant to agricultural and environmental matters such as farming, agribusiness, water, sanitation, natural resource management, and sustainability.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Decentralized, Distributed and Disruptive: The New Diseconomies of Scale

By Stuart Hart

Editor's note: This post originally appeared on Stuart Hart's blog.

Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, economies of scale have ruled the day, with massive investments in power plants, pipelines, factories, transmission lines, dams, and highways to more efficiently serve the burgeoning consumption needs of the rising consumer classes. Industrial-era technologies (such as electricity, petrochemicals, and automobiles) were also closely associated with mass production, the assembly line, and centralized, bureaucratic organization, resulting in the rise of organized labor, worker alienation, and growing social stratification. 

As we enter the second decade of the new century, however, the "dark satanic mills" of the Industrial Revolution are giving way to a new generation of technologies that promise to change dramatically the societal, economic, and environmental landscape. The information economy powered by the microchip has already begun to revolutionize society by democratizing access to information and empowering the repressed. Indeed, YouTube, Twitter, and the rapid emergence of the "blogosphere" have spawned a bottom-up revolution in user-generated content. 

Increasingly, the technologies of tomorrow will be decentralized, distributed in character and disruptive to incumbent firms and institutions. It is much cheaper and more energy efficient, for example, to treat drinking water at the point of use, rather than transporting massive quantities of clean water through pipes from treatment plants only to have much of it leak out or be re-contaminated before it reaches its final destination. 

Indeed, we are witnessing a dramatic reversal of the logic of scale--the new diseconomies of scale

Think about it. Over the past decade or so, we have witnessed the rise of: distributed generation of energy, point of use water treatment, community supported agriculture, microbreweries, point of care healthcare, microfinance, and sustainable construction, to name just a few. Indeed, the term "nano" has become de rigeur

Because existing players in the utility, energy, transport, food, water, and material sectors have so much to lose, however, it is enormously difficult for the entrepreneurs developing such distributed solutions to gain traction in established markets. Yet given their small scale and distributed nature, such clean technologies hold the potential to creatively destroy existing hierarchies, bypass corrupt governments and regimes, and usher in an entirely new age of capitalism that brings widely distributed benefits to the entire human community.

And rather than depending on national governments or paternalistic social engineers to design the future for the aspiring masses, these disruptive new technologies may be best brought forward through the power of capitalism--not the capitalism of the Industrial Revolution, which enriched a few at the expense of many, but rather a new, more dynamic form of global capitalism that will uproot established elites and unseat incumbents by creating opportunity at the base of the economic pyramid on a previously unimagined scale.

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