Dispatch 13 — Just Enough

I’ve recently come to realize that a good number of the articles I’ve shared in the last year could, when contemplated from a certain angle, be grouped together in a way I hadn’t planned on. I noticed that there’s definitely a “just enough” aspect to many of them.

Rather than judgement or prescription, I propose this idea as a mental model for recognizing and paying attention to quite a broad variety of decisions, products, services, actions, fields, etc. It’s not a new expression of course, and a number of the articles referenced already use those two words, but it is perhaps a more wide ranging look at the instances where we can stop and consider what is “just enough” (j.e.), as opposed to what is the default, the given status quo, the expected.

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On thing that has regularly come to mind since reading this interview last year with Vaclav Smil, is the idea of slack.

We could halve our energy and material consumption and this would put us back around the level of the 1960s. We could cut down without losing anything important. Life wasn’t horrible in 1960s or 70s Europe. People from Copenhagen would no longer be able to fly to Singapore for a three-day visit, but so what? Not much is going to happen to their lives. People don’t realize how much slack in the system we have.

We’ve realized it through the pandemic (a lot of “just enough” reasoning happened during lockdowns), we’ve missed some essentials but, for many, things that were once essential or could only be done one way were suddenly proven otherwise. Smil’s statement is worth pondering, other than some health and social advances (vaccines, treatments, more gender and racial equality, etc.), in terms of material possessions, would the 60s and 70s be so bad? Degrowth or even less growth is often caricatured as living in caves but there’s a lot of collective excess we can cut without even really cutting into living standards—and a lot more by the top X percent.

Same for many people’s lives, seeing there is slack can be the first step in realizing that perhaps there is a “just enough” level we have yet to consider or achieve.

Just enough internet

One of the first occurrences of “just enough” to draw my attention was an excellent talk given by Rachel Coldicutt where she argues that the public sector, especially in digital, should stop “following big business, and think back to the social contract,” that they should wonder whether competing with the private sector, especially using their metrics, makes for a better service… or worse.

If the answer from business is to add data to everything, then perhaps the public sector should be more measured. Perhaps a public service Internet should be a model of restraint; a counterweight to the ballast of peak data, that knows and provides just enough. […]

It might look like a policy of Sufficient Technology: just enough to make it work better for the people that count. … Which might also be the best thing for the planet.

This also applies on a personal or community level and although most of the time people wouldn’t frame it that way, j.e. is already happening. After flocking to the big platforms, following and being followed by all comers and all family members, a growing number of people are moving to smaller closed communities.

Newsletters are popping up daily, like blogs did ± fifteen years ago, in part for the personal connection, in part to move away from open crowds and invasive surveillance and algorithms.

Simple file based websites are more niche but form a thriving ecosystem of toolkits and users. Green web ideals with simpler websites and lighter files are starting to gain some traction. In some circles, NPR’s new version of their text-only front page is being raved about.

Just enough platform, service, content, connection, functionality, visuals, etc. Realizing that the bells and whistles to inflate numbers, the whizzbang, the swirling graphics, the gigantic header images, are not always necessary. (Yes, I’m aware my own site has those big header images 😉 )

Just enough people

Already alluded to above for online communities, and discussed in more detail in Dispatch 12, Spaces of Work & Life, it’s worth a mention separately since it’s also something that happens offline. Matt Webb wrote about it (quoting James Mullholland’s own thinking), you should read the whole thing but here’s a good teaser:

It’s a crucible for exploration and creation… but this isn’t a team on working on a single project together. It’s about independent work and feedback. Says Mulholland: “An ongoing relationship provides more effective advice, allowing the use of shorthand for concepts and a two-way conversation that autodidactic education lacks.” […]

He asks: “What is the SMALL GROUP for the 2020s?” – and gives some boundaries: around a dozen members; mutual accountability on personal projects through regular presentations.

As I said, I’m using “just enough” as a mental model here, a lens, neither of them talk about small groups in that way but it’s definitely one angle from which to look at those groups; perhaps networking events and large amorphous groups aren’t that great, perhaps a small core of members, a squad, a scenius is enough, perhaps better even.

Just enough home

Think of this on two scales; the micro with our own homes as we’ve been reassessing them through pandemic living, and the macro with cities. A number of urban centres were already recalibrating transport, services, infrastructures, and the shape of neighbourhood and were forced (jumped on the opportunity?) to accelerate those changes “because 2020.”

I’m looking back at Dispatch 12 again with the rethinking of our homes but also throwing in eating, as many started cooking more, baking bread, eating less meat, trying out veganism, etc. Cooking is more work than ordering-in or going to a restaurant, but in many cases folks are also realizing that a good simple home cooked meal and perhaps a decent bottle of wine are “just enough” to lift up the day. And what is Michael Pollan’s maxim but a call for just enough?

Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants

As Peter argues, we can also repurpose Coldicutt’s j.e. internet for smart cities.

We can only manage what we can measure? Not necessarily. Neither the population or the urban organism need to be managed; just given a robust framework to thrive within. We don’t always need real time data for every decision — we can also make good decision based on values and trust in democratic processes, and by giving a voice to all impacted communities.

Just enough data in a smart city is what’s needed to enable citizens, to inform administrators, not to put numbers on everything and optimize every little bit of slack.

As New York, London, Montréal, and Paris (among many many others) are adding bike lane after bike lane, as even Amsterdam is still removing ten thousand parking spaces, we can look at these changes as a realignment to just enough transport, to realizing that using tons of metal for each person to move around town might have been too much, perhaps walking and biking through smaller neighbourhoods with smaller scale services is enough most of the time. Perhaps great public transport is enough to get to another part of town.

Lastly, we also see a realignment of priorities for many who start to wonder if a smaller house or a smaller city, with fewer things to do, is enough for what they actually do. Most wont make the change, but this reassessment is certainly happening at scale right now.

Just enough for citizens

This section was almost called “just enough state” but that would probably read libertarian and that’s not the angle of the following examples.

In “Slack” above, I already mentioned degrowth which is an obvious concept to look at under this lens.

We can also consider Universal Basic Income which is about providing just enough money to feel more secure and give more flexibility in life choices. Tessy Britton’s universal basic everything takes it a step further with a framework to co-create the basic services a community needs, it’s pretty much the social infrastructure version of UBI at neighbourhood scale. We can also look at Finland which “solved” homelessness by providing basic homes and with it dignity and opportunities to get back on one’s feet.

Doughnut Economics are pretty much a j.e. framework: Provide enough for everyone with “a social foundation, to ensure that no one is left falling short on life’s essentials” but not too much so that “humanity does not collectively overshoot the planetary boundaries that protect Earth’s life-supporting systems.”

It is, of course, a much more complex issue (so are the others but worth flagging here), but defunding the police can also be considered. Just enough financing to provide the original police mandate of serving and protecting, while shifting the rest of the budget to properly finance other aspects of making everyone secure, like more social workers to address, for example, mental health issues or domestic disputes.

Just enough ownership

The whole sharing economy (when it’s actual sharing and not just a disruption and extraction by VC-backed hacks) is about realizing that having access to cabins, tools, cars, bikes, etc. is sometimes just enough and doesn’t require that every individual owns all of those things.

Care, maintenance, repair, can mean that repairing that phone’s screen is enough to keep using it. Maintaining regularly X is enough to keep it running.

For many situations, a well organized commons or a coop can give enough access, enough responsibility, enough control, and doesn’t require private parcs, landlords collecting rent and adding no value, or businesses focused on investors.

A just lens

So again, I’m presenting this as a kind of mental model, I’m not arguing that all of these examples have something in common in the way they were thought out or that it’s what the creators or organizers had in mind but I’m proposing that it’s an interesting lens through which we can see them, and a way we can think of our own needs, ideas and projects.

Finally, even though I’ve used what I would call positive examples, the same lens can of course be used to realize where someone said “we’ve done enough” or “enough is enough.” A group might think that they’ve done “enough” to diversify their work force or have “enough” women on their board. A government might think that “enough is enough” and try to stop protests. Perhaps then comes the time in your analysis for another way to read the “just” in “just enough.”

Header image: Coffee by a window in Iceland, Khamkéo Vilaysing.