Science Fiction Tropes: The Downsizing Illusion

This blog entry is a contribution to from World to World, a work co-operation between research lady Dr Isabella Hermann and business lady Dipl Psych Patricia von Papstein.


Author: Patricia von Papstein 


Welcome to another round of building business competencies through science fiction literacy.

Today my target is business disruption, and in particular the method of downsizing.


Disruption (in opposition to integration) is a pet child among today´s business intervention strategies. Its narrative is about market novices breaking into markets with so far unconventional innovations.


Perhaps because disruption is surrounded by the smell of ingenuity without regret it does not loose its tricky charms. Science Fiction addresses the disruptive action in many novels and films. It intensively celebrates the attitude of brushing aside all resistance while replacing the „disfunctional old“.


Let´s have a look where the science fiction narrative of disruption and the business disruption theory loose their way.


For demonstration purposes we have chosen the science fiction film Downsizing (2017).

This film is a good "sparrings partner" for exploring science fiction as a teaching play of breaking free from cynical products and self-absorbed leadership.


Downsizing as a business term is an intervention to eliminate unproductivity. It´s practiced through cutting jobs and reducing the material input. In today´s business reality this is a repetitive operation of corporate reorganizing applied as a cure against inflated organizational structures.


There have been other science fiction films in which the feature of downsizing in its gestalt of miniaturization is played out. There is, for instance, Fantastic Voyage from 1966 where a submarine and its crew is shrunken to destroy a blot clot in a human body and by that brave act revive the patient. We have picked the film „Downsizing“, directed by Alexander Payne, because here a whole social community undergoes the shrinking process.

„Downsizing“, as the film title promisses, plays with a particular innovation principle, that of material miniaturization. Transferring creatures and objects to a miniature, microscopic or even subatomic stature is a well narrated feature in science fiction.


Today´s innovation theory likes the principle of miniaturization, because it is seen as a key to success towards an optimized life. The belief behind? Small objects consume less material, make less waste and suck less energy. How small can an object be constructed and still be handled? Those businesses that can manage extreme size decrease are fancied as candidates for the throne of business disruption rulers.


Small is beautiful. But innovation theory does not apply the term in the sense how the Austrian researcher and philanthropist Leopold Kohr developed it.


Leopold Kohr concluded on his mission of naming exponential economical growth a chimera that „the human measure“– building society around the needs of communities, not companies – should rank first. For further reading.


In contrast to this opinion miniaturization as a method of technology innovation looks for putting small size to the limit, but without taking the consequences for our social life.


How does the science fiction film „Downsizing“ (2017) challenge our understanding of business disruption?


In the film „Downsizing“ the target of miniaturization is the human body itself. The film beams us into a time where humanity is realizing that the end of resources is near. So, a quick fix triggered by reduced body size feels terrific and plausible.

 As a „master of business disruption“ we get introduced to the company Leisure Land. This enterprise profits from people´s naive belief that shrinking their body size signifies the end of their financial and social worries.


The disruptive act: customers of Leisure Land Inc. undergo a permanent and irreversible medical procedure. The human body is shrinked to .0364 percent of its current mass and volume. A reality check: while an average person today is about 175 cm tall, this would mean for a downsized person a height of 6 mm. This is a size comparable to that of an ant.

Get a taste of the film´s flair by watching two sequences.


First, watch the film sequence of the so called „shortening process“.

Now watch the sequence „the equivalent value“ to experience how Leisure Land`s sales department works out the naive fallacy of a customer benefit.

 Harvesting insights


The film addresses several business behavior cliches. That ´s why the nasty business person cannot fail to attend. In „Downsizing“ the screen role of Dusan Mirkovic takes the seat of the self-absorbed leader. Dusan makes money from smuggeling luxury goods from the former world to the small people ´s territories.

Watch him working.


Why do characters such as Dusan keep „product cynicism“ running? Because they are the backbone of the Leisure Land business success: the unabated belief in consumption as the one and only life purpose.


Here a sequence about the Leisure Land product and services presentation show celebrating the miniaturized paradies of perpetual consumption.


The dark side of a disruptive business...

... that is focussed on totalitarian consumerism is about social desolation and wealth fragmentation.


The film refers to the dark side through telling the story of Ngoc Lan. As a politically inconvenient person she has been shrunken against her will and been brought to Leisure Land to work as a cleaner. And, poverty still exists. An armada of human slaves declutters the houses and outdoor facilities of the small rich.


Science fiction literacy is about building alertness against noxious business.

Imagine yourself in the shoes of a future business leader


Let`s apply some knowledge pieces derived from „Downsizing“ now. Imagine as far as the end: once the whole mankind having been shrinked how would the battle for resources go on in „Shrinki“ land?


a. Let s question disruption that fiddles around with human fertility

Think of the thousands of years of evolution that it took to develop human reproduction. The comfort for a first generation of „downsizers“ may be nice, but with how many and severe „collateral damages“ will the reproduction act of conceiving and giving birth to a child struggle?


b. Let´s question disruption that underestimates the forces of the universe

Think of the balanced power of the elements of nature – the elements such as water, soil, fire and wind. If we would even follow through with shrinking the whole earth how would we cope with the problems of uncontrolled mass concentration and gravity anomaly?


Isn´t it illuminating to have a showdown with yourself in the shoes of a far in the future living business leader? The business leader character that you live out and refine will be a mirror of what you are capable to acchieve in the present, but of your behavior shadows as well.


For reaching out to a next game level of science fiction literacy we leave you with these two questions:

- Imagine you would write a plot for the fictional company Leisure Land in which it disrupts itself.

Which steps would you take to disrupt its totalitarian consumption drive?

- Imagine you would direct the leaders of today`s tycoon businesses:

How would you disrupt the giant size of these companies?


Patricia von Papstein