Model ships and trains - a riff on scale

and emotional safety as we grow

Walking through the park today, there was something remarkable happening. There was an armada of ships on the little, shallow duck pond. Over twenty in total, I saw everything from simple sloops to two masted schooners.

How could such a small, shallow pond contain such naval might? They were all scale models, controlled remotely by the slouching men who paced the shore.

The ocean is a big, scary place. Full sized ships can be tossed around and sunk by its might. I’ve even become seasick sailing in a sheltered bay. The movement on the water made me nauseous. On a scale model? The stakes are lowered. You can be in control. There’s less to lose.

I imagine this is the same with a train set. Trains in reality are huge, mighty, frightening beasts. And they can be tamed by a table top. Imagine how soothing it must be to create a world where you can control such majestic machines without worry of things going awry.

Model racers are another wonderful fantasy. Racing remote cars has all of the excitement without any of the burning to death in the cockpit of the car. It’s a great way to play pretend. Children are the kings of playing with scale. It allows them to make sense of the world by having agency over things that typically are bigger than them.

In that way, architects are really just big children. Their scale models allow people to visualize what a project will look like in the end. Their scale models serve as great guides to making things full sized. They are easier to manipulate and understand when they are smaller than human size. 

In business these days, we typically hear of companies scaling up. This creates an interesting problem for people. While companies and systems can be set to scale easily, humans, with our messy emotions, fears and resistances, live on a scale of 1:1.

Our emotions and instincts don’t scale. And sometimes, size is scary. How do we keep things human, relatable and able to cope with fear as we create organizations, processes and structures that dwarf the people who began them? What accounting do we make for the emotional impact of scale?

How can we make change something humans can process and contend with? Perhaps we don’t need to be in total control like the scale boats on the lake. And we likely don’t need to all go through sixty foot seas. How can we create something that people can get into and let go of some control without becoming violently overwhelmed?