Human-Scale

This is an idea I started thinking about 7 or 8 years ago, and it has become a sort of principle in my personal and business life.

It’s difficult to express concretely what “Human-Scale” means to me, but getting better at sharing ideas is one of my main objectives for writing publicly every day. So, I’ll give it a go, and providing some examples of how I do my best to live this out may be the best way to start.

I don’t keep to-do lists. No planner or project management system. I’ve seen some incredible processes that people, likely more effective than me, use to make sure they get things done. Not following daily lists isn’t a personal law — they just haven’t ever really worked for me, and trying to stick to them gave me a bit of anxiety. I do not want to have more to do each day than I can grasp.

I have two ways I stay on task, and they fit organically into my daily flow:

  • SkeddyBot — My favorite messaging app is Telegram. I use it all day long for nearly all communication, and thanks to automations and webhooks most of my important notifications. So this elegant chatbot to send reminder messages quickly became a natural habit. When I tell Skeddy tasks to remind me of, they get done. I wrote about it in detail here.
  • Email — With several email inboxes, I have to consciously keep them from overflowing. I reflexively archive, short response, or leave it if it pertains to a task. Then, I batch those tasks around a block of time on the computer, they stay in my inbox until completed.

I use Google Keep for shopping lists, and to keep track of some bigger, unscheduled projects that I’m not ready to tackle just yet. Day-to-day, I don’t want to have more on my plate that I am able to focus on and keep in the forefront.

I know the streets and feel of all the neighborhoods in St. Louis, from far-north to deep-south. If there is someone I need to get in touch with, there’s a good chance I’ve met them, and if not one or two degrees of separation at most will get me there.

I feel I have a handle on pretty much anything of consequence going on, and even more important to me, that I can have a positive effect. I definitely do not get this sense visiting bigger cities.

The suburbs were from the outset built around a very un-human element: they require an automobile to survive.

A lot of imagery around the city is glass and steel, modern living. I think of the city as the pinnacle of human civilization, evolving since Ancient Egypt and before, with its height as the great American city of the early 20th century. Before highways, warehousing, and world wars. Millions of people sustained and thrived within their own neighborhoods. Much of the food was raised within the city or in close proximity, because it had to be. All one’s needs, including community, education, personal services, were attained by walking and streetcars. The built environment in a healthy city is empowering.

The most beautiful example I know of growing business in this way is Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, MI. It would be impossible to visit this college town for more than a couple days without being impacted in some way by Ari Weinzweig’s work, whether you knew it or not. While they do not open businesses outside of Ann Arbor, his philosophy has touched people the world over.

Instead of taking on a lot of debt to be another VC-backed on demand delivery service in dozens of cities, I decided to keep Food Pedaler small. This is because I personally love knowing the pedalers, restaurant owners, chefs, and biggest fans of our service. I love having a handle on what’s going on, and being there for our riders, partners and customers. Being small and community-based gives us a special feel and extraordinary quality of service. It means much slower growth than the industry, and it affected our decision to finally expand using a neighborhood-based ownership model.

As my wife and I recently started Perennial City, we were on the same page from the beginning that we wanted to keep it community-scale.

It’s a pretty tall order to grow all your own food. And since we love good coffee and will not be moving to the tropics, we technically won’t ever attain this.

However, I do think we could grow the majority of our staples. Veggies and fruit thrive where we live. Eggs and dairy products are a huge portion of our diet and could realistically be met. We have plenty of laying hens already, just need to work with the city for good micro-livestock allowances so we can produce our own milk, butter, yogurt, ice cream, cheese…

Where we aren’t growing the food, we strive to have relationships with those who do. I’ve been drinking raw milk from the same family for 8 years. We purchase produce locally wherever possible. Local and pastured is a requirement for meat.

Back to the coffee: We are able to walk to our favorite roaster, Blueprint Coffee. They build relationships with the farmers, work with them to improve their farms, and their offerings return every year with each new crop. This will likely be the closest we will get in this category.

This was a bit of a Sunday stream-of-consciousness about something that means a lot to me. I didn’t come up with a definition through this exercise, hopefully my examples helped express the concept. This is a way of living and working, instead of just importing/exporting and consuming, you really know what sustains you. You have relationships and connections with your world. Incredibly productive people like Bezos and Musk may simply be able to wrap their head around a lot more, be connected and know/be known on a much larger scale. I may work on this idea and share some more about it down the road.

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Timothy Kiefer

bootstrapper, daily blogger, soil farmer, urban agriculture professional, wannabe programmer || perennial.city