Incrementalism

Progress consisting of small steps: little-by-little (Latin: paulatim). It is generally—but not always—based on a clear intention as to where these steps will eventually lead. It corrects for errors, being guided by slight feedbacks, or algorithms; like the steersman of a yacht. It may in due course be so prolific and elaborate that it becomes unsupportable and breaks in a shock of kaikaku. Of course, that may not happen. For one thing, feedbacks and corrections do not necessarily have to deliver incremental advance (kaizen); they may deliver stability, as in the case of species that had remained unchanged over long periods, despite dramatic changes of climate (Ecology: Farmers and Hunters, Systems Thinking > Feedback > Homeostasis).

Incrementalism can be powerful, and we have an illustration of this in the case of land use and planning—a task which, in the Lean Economy, will call for brilliance in the application and evolution of the proximity principle. Bit-by-bit progress discovers solutions which rapid, broad-brush change misses. Here is the architect and planner, Patrick Geddes, approaching things incrementally in the British Raj in India in 1914. His first encounter with the problem was when he became aware of the British engineers’ plans for wholesale slum clearance: the orthodoxy was demolition followed by a gridiron pattern of streets and expensive hygiene arrangements. Geddes, in contrast, pointed out that “the existing roads and lanes are the past products of practical life, its movement and experience”. What they needed was not massive and sudden change at the instruction of British officials, but steady improvement:

By our small removals, straightenings, openings and replannings in detail, a network of clean and decent lanes, of small streets and open places, and even gardens, is thus formed, which is often pleasant, and I venture to say sometimes beautiful. . . . As dilapidated and depressed old quarters reopen to another, the old village life, with its admirable combination of private simplicity and sacred magnificence, [turns out to be] only awaiting renewal.I35

Peter Hall has dug into the reports Geddes wrote at this time, and into the reactions of the engineers with their authoritarian and expensive hygiene agenda. For them, Geddes was, “a crank who don’t know his subject”. But Geddes’ incrementalism brought immediate returns in the form of reductions in sickness and death rates, at a small fraction of the cost and time required by the clearances and rebuilding of the official plan. And yet, working at the level of detail has its problems, too. It calls on reserves of time and patience—and the trouble it takes to build that detail, to encourage it to grow out of local circumstance, is illustrated by Geddes himself:

It requires long and patient study. The work cannot be done in the office with ruler and parallels, for the plan must be sketched out on the spot, after wearying hours of perambulation—commonly among sights and odours which neither Brahmin nor Briton has generally schooled himself to endure. This type of work also requires maps of a higher degree of detail and accuracy than those hitherto required by law for municipal or government use. Even after a good deal of experience of the game, one constantly finds oneself tempted like the impatient chess-player, to sweep a fist through the pieces which stand in the way.I36

Geddes had recognised for a long time how much can be achieved when the potential of what is already there is understood and managed in the right way. Earlier in his career (in 1886) he had moved into an Edinburgh tenement block, and what followed was an illustration of incrementalism at work. He rented several adjacent rooms, joined them together to make a flat, and moved outwards from there. He encouraged a collective effort of owners and occupiers to conserve the façades and shapes of the buildings while refurbishing; he knocked down parts of the tenements to let light and air into the courtyards, and converted deadbeat slums to hostels, flats and halls of residence for students at Edinburgh University.I37

The consistent theme in Geddes’ philosophy was this incrementalism—or, as Geddes preferred, “evolution”—by which the assets that we have inherited are given the chance to evolve their individual identities and capabilities and, in doing so, become individuated and distinctive. He developed this idea in building (the Outlook Tower museum in Edinburgh was inspired and developed by him), in his work in the biological evolution of the cell—and in his application of this principle in his study of love, The Evolution of Sex:

For we see that it is possible to interpret the ideals of ethical progress, through love and sociality, co-operation and sacrifice, not as mere utopias contradicted by experience, but as the highest expressions of the central evolutionary process of the natural world. The ideal of evolution is indeed an Eden; and although competition can never be wholly eliminated, and progress must thus approach without ever completely reaching its ideal, it is much for our pure natural history to recognise that creation’s final law is not struggle but love.I38

And Geddes illustrates this with a steel engraving of six baby opossums being taken out for a walk by their mother, hanging on by their tails.

Incremental, observant advance; the maturing individuation of a conserved inheritance: the principle was taken to maturity in his book, Cities in Evolution. You do not destroy; you might intervene; you do not manipulate. Essentially, you enable.

Geddes’ consistent theme of bottom-up incrementalism in a cared-for culture, building on what is already there, belongs in the conservative tradition with ancient roots in Aristotle and Aquinas and more modern ones in Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott, and in Lean Logic’s principles of empowerment, presence and lean thinking. When the task that lies ahead is almost impossible, the strategy of using what is there, revising it, and enabling it to build on its strengths endows the project with inherited capital which the visionary ideologue, whose first instinct is demolition, forgoes.

What matters is not being right, but being perceptive about the errors which you will inevitably make, about what they are telling you, and about the direction in which evolution could take you, if allowed. As Geddes’ contemporary, Ebenezer Howard, the man behind the Garden Cities movement, precursor to Social Cities, remarked,

One should never be excessively realistic in human plans. Our aspirations should always be as far-reaching as they can be, so as to make it possible to retract from some of them if necessary; for great gains are not to be thought of.I39

The social historian Paul Barker puts it the other way round:

One brilliant feature of Howard’s plan is that it could be created incrementally, by scores of local initiatives.I40

Does incrementalism contradict lean thinking? Not really. Intention is muted, but it is usually alert to opportunity, so pull is in place. Kaizen is there, in a gentle form. And what of kaikaku, that act of destroying and starting again in a new direction and on different principles? Caution is needed here, because kaikaku can belong in the destructive world of rationalism. And even it if it doesn’t, it may be only a remote necessity. It may come without an invitation, in the form of a climacteric; or it may be the last resort when faced by a system paralysed by autocratic top-down administration; or by large-scale dependencies and lines of supply that can no longer be supported; or by the death-trap whereby incremental improvements can do no more than deepen the trouble that a system is already in. Or we may see kaikaku in the sequence of life and death (Sacrifice-and-Succession) which gives a community its longevity. At the small scale its value lies in its frequency; at the large scale, in its rarity.

 

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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