Parkinson’s Law is not so much a piece of legal doctrine as it is a proverb counseling that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." We have all seen this in action – the same task can take us a week or an hour, mediated by variables like procrastination, perfectionism, sleep.
Similarly, most of us know the converse – work shrinking to fill the time that is available for its completion – to be true, as proven by widespread casual interview vernacular such as “I work best under pressure” as the time crunch allows us to drop away distractions and the unnecessary to focus on completing what’s most important.
But aside from time, does this apply to other assets, like money? To what extent can we squeeze the same results from small and large sums?
I think it can, and here are some examples.
Buskerfest used $1,000 to take the age-old tradition of “busking” and revitalize a dreary and abandoned nighttime downtown with an influx of music for pedestrians and public transit users. And it has grown into an annual event that has drawn crowds from other parts of the city and has expanded into an umbrella for year-round performance programming that includes collaborations with other institutions.
For NEWT, $1,000 was enough to transform a city skyline with a temporary piece of performance architecture: a 19-story LED wall dancing to music spectators could tune into on their phones.
With $1,000, Sensor Hub was able to buy the necessary equipment to transform an at-home submarine into a data collection tool for the city’s main waterway, making findings available to the public.
The same amount of money went a long way for Pretty in Little Haiti, which transformed unused oil barrels into beautiful trashcans painted by local artists, serving a dual purpose in an area of the city where litter was a problem. Inspired by the project, local micro-businesses have partnered to ensure the makeshift trash bins are emptied regularly, as the city does not collect trash that is not in municipal bins.
For Entopsis, $1,000 funded a second pilot of their analog diagnostic device, helping to prove their concept enough to secure $800,000 in funding to continue their laboratory research and help bring to market a liquid testing solution that could have life-saving implications for emergency scenarios and low-income communities.
Similarly, $1,000 bought ReFemme the necessary supplies to organize boundary-pushing performance art around the feminine aesthetic, and made it possible for Streetwaves Summer Surf Camp, Techies in Liberty City, Lotus House, Girls Rock Camp, and the Dirt Therapy Farm to serve marginalized communities with projects that are as interesting as they are grassroots.
These ideas differ in their overall budgets as well as their ultimate impact, but they were all funded by small – you guessed it, $1,000 - no-strings-attached grants from Awesome Foundation MIAMI. Some of them have grown into established, ongoing projects with varied avenues of funding, others were used as pilots and case studies, and yet others have stayed the same or dissolved after their goal was accomplished.
Despite these various life cycles, the unifying factor is that these were all untested and unproven ideas with no proof of concept, and a small grant helped them achieve a minimum viable product for concept testing. As I wrote almost a year ago when looking back at the organization’s impact and grants, small but concrete infusions turned ideas into hackable solutions and bridged what was with what could be.
But what is fascinating about these stories is not that a positive outcome was achieved with scarce funds. We are all familiar with micro-lending success stories such as Grameen Bank, or effective crowdfunding campaigns and lending circles. Frugal innovation is impressive precisely in that it is able to use very little in effective, efficient, and often surprising ways, and it is one of the reasons its models are already disrupting the production and creative patterns of the developed world.
What should strike us about these examples is how relatively easy it is for a pretty average individual to make a small investment or donation that leads to tangible experimentation and impact. Awesome Foundation as a concept is based on a loose network of largely amateur philanthropists who pool their small donations together and award micro-grants to ideas they wish to support in their respective communities. The model is local, grassroots, and meant to connect average citizens with ideas to the support, access, and investment they need to test them. As a potential donor, investor, and participant, this kind of structure is penetrable, easily replicated, and low-risk.
As such, the typical call to action for ideas and projects in our cities should be matched by a call for donors, giving circles, informal support structures, and accessible grassroots funding in our cities, not to the exclusion of the larger funding needed to solve systemic and complex problems, but to its complement. If more of us think about how much we can truly squeeze out of our money if we had to – à la the inverse of Parkinson’s law – we may just surprise ourselves by helping to launch a handful of great ideas.