7. a small group for a big group

RPBW, Renzo Piano Building Workshop

This specific way of work (a small group active toward a big group of people) is typical of the technological innovation field.

Internet was born like this, the personal computer was born like this. The work of any venture capitalist is to understand which “small group” will come up with the succesful idea worth to be funded and supported.

If we are talking about radical innovation, a small group is often a necessary ingredient. On one side it is true that innovation requires multidisciplinary skills, but to manage  a working group requires a lot of communication (and that’s work – a lot of it) proportional to the square of the number of people. Generally the trick in order to keep this number reasonable is to seek people with multiple skills. The overspecialization comes after, when you have to refine and improve things.

Another important reference typical of this group is the classic twentieth century designer. The person who works with a number  of colleagues (they can be graphic designers, architects, product designers) spending time and energy to give his contribution to a big group of users (the people who will use a building, the people who will use a given product).

It is a well set scheme used for decades in order to run any kind of design business. It can be horizontal (see for instance Arup or IDEO) or vertical, generally based with a carismatic character on top of the system (this typical of modern architecture: all the famous architects achieved success organizing a small group of people to face all kind of difficult or apparently impossible tasks: two classic examples could be considered Paul Rand, Renzo Piano or Norman Foster).

Some of the most famous logo designed by Paul Rand in his career

Norman Foster, Crystal Island (project), Moscow, 2009

Renzo Piano RPBW, Tjibaou Cultural Centre in Nouméa, New Caledonia, 1998

Related to our theme, one observations becomes relevant. In design field, over the past fifteen years the mechanism of the firm organized around a charismatic figure has become more and more similar to the show-business organization. Hence, there is no substantial difference between Madonna (or if you prefer, Michael Jackson) and Rem Koolhaas or Ron Arad.

Rem Koolhaas (OMA), Casa da Música, Porto, 2006

Ron Arad for Kartell: “Bookworm

As Guy Debord explained with great precision some fifty years ago in his “The Society of Spectacle“, when our society turns into a colossal show up twentyfour hours on twentyfour, then we have no real difference between a rock singer or a town planner (with all the attached consequences, mostly spooky).

Another typical example (in every period and in every country) of people working within the “small group for the big group”  frame, are the monks (altough active in some cases within the “small group for all” system). It doesn’t matter if they are Zen or Catholic Christians: here we are talking about all those people who live in (generally) secluded places together with other people who share the same interests and passions.

Above, Certosa di San Giacomo, Capri. Below, Certosa di Pavia

An interesting description of the phenomenon of monastery life can be found in a recent novel by Neal Stephenson: here the monks are scientists, mathematicians and freethinkers while people outside the monastery are a mixture of religious fanatics and fools. The outside world goes through cycles of various kinds of disasters, wars, revolutions, returning to barbaric age, while the inhabitants of the monastery do keep alive a fair share of knowledge related to astronomy, logic and measuring of time.

The relation between the single person, the small group (in this case, the other people living in the monastery) and the overall society is quite fascinating. Who is addressing the praying monk? Is he addressing his god? Is he addressing himself? Is he active for the benefit of his small group? Or rather the whole system of monkhood (big group)? Some monks would say that they pray for the benefit of everyone…

Let’s take as example the case of the person who is active as a volunteer in the homeless shelter. If we were to classify this type of activity, we would agree that this kind of activity falls withing the “small group” (the volunteers) for a “big group” (the homeless). At the same time we can not not avoid to think there is some not-so-marginal element related to the satisfaction of  personal needs.

The person obsessed with pysical fitness will spend many hours in the gym. In the meanwhile the volunteer will spend many hours active in his charity group. What they do is radically different (one improves the physical condition of his body, the other improves the physical condition of unfortunate people).

Still, there is a fascinating similarity: both works to be happy with themselves.

Here the idea is that the mechanism (to be happy with yourself), is very relevant in terms of personal choices in terms of what to do with your free time and how to spend your energies and money. Finally we are facing people who could be placed in two different categories at the same time (“single person for big group” or “single person for him/herself).

If this is the case, this means that we are shifting from the model ” a single person for the big group” to the “single person for single person” model.

Of course, everyone would agree that it is better to live in a world where people are happy when they go home after they fed the poor or sheltered the homeless (compared to the people who are obsessed with the physical state of their body). For the benefit of our grid, anyway, these two kind of people are not so different.

Stanley Kubrick‘s “Clockwork Orange“, 1971

Name and things useful + important (to be remembered for the exam):

Ron Arad

Norman Foster


– Rem Koolhaas, “Delirious New York

Renzo Piano

Paul Rand


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