Scaling social innovation: An art or a science?

February 22, 2016

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If there were a simple recipe for social innovation, anyone could easily transform an idea into an impactful solution reaching millions. Unfortunately things are a lot messier on the ground. Many ‘amazing’ innovations that promise to save millions of lives fail to scale and quietly disappear.


If there were a simple recipe for social innovation, anyone could easily transform an idea into an impactful solution reaching millions. Unfortunately things are a lot messier on the ground. Many ‘amazing’ innovations that promise to save millions of lives fail to scale and quietly disappear. Who’s to blame: the innovation, the innovator, the strategy for scaling up, or the environment?

The new Scaling Social Innovation in South Asia, a special supplement in the Stanford Social Innovation Review offers insights from practitioners, academics and donors on what works, what doesn’t, and why. Sponsored and organised by BRAC, the authorship is largely from South Asia- Bangladesh, Pakistan and India- and includes a diverse mix of practitioners and academics from prestigious institutions like NESTA, the Rural Support Programmes Network of Pakistan, the Indian Government’s BharatNet, Cambridge University and the Rockefeller Foundation.

In the introduction Scaling Up Social Innovation the authors write, “From more than a century of combined experience, we know that innovation done right is more than a good idea or a ‘eureka!’ moment—it is a patient process of iteration, learning, evaluation, implementation, and importantly, scaling up what works.”

The truth is, while there are definitely strategies and approaches that increase the likelihood of scaling up an innovation, part of the equation always comes down to luck and opportunity. And persistence! Large-scale impact of an innovation rarely happens overnight, no matter how promising the initial idea is.

That being said, decades of learning from development successes and failures can demystify scale. For example, BRAC’s experience of working with adolescent girls in Bangladesh and Uganda illustrates how much context affects programme success. Comparing the challenges BRAC faced while trying to scale up a similar model in two contents in Lessons in Scaling and Failing, Anjali Sarker and colleagues conclude, “Though poverty looks similar in new environments, development professionals must first disentangle what is different, before applying lessons from past successes.” In such cases, frameworks and scientific approaches can aid the adaptation of a model from one context to another, especially when combined with extensive operational savvy.

Several articles emphasise the importance of understanding a context in developing a solution, particular as development challenges grow more complex. Tackling such problems need more than a scientific approach. Maria A. May and co-authors point out in Tackling Wicked Rights and Justice Issues that simply looking at visible results can distract leaders from tackling the more entrenched changes required. “Progress happens in spurts and feels opportunistic, but the reality is that the ability to capitalise on these chances as they emerge requires a deep understanding of the issues, trust from the affected community, and an ability to understand how to push effectively for change.”

Nor can one stakeholder do it all. While partnership across private sector, social sector, and government can be challenging, when it works, the results are astounding. But these examples are few and far between. Harvey Koh and Jaideep Prabhu suggest in Scaling Up Inclusive Markets that while the private sector can make significant, sustainable contributions to poverty alleviation, it will need assistance: “Although ever-greater amounts of capital flow into impact investing funds, enterprise challenge funds, and accelerators—all of which are focused on the firms themselves—efforts to work systematically with and alongside these firms to overcome external scaling barriers are disappointingly thin on the ground. Where inclusive businesses have scaled up, they have done so because governments and NGOs worked with and alongside them to remove those barriers.”

While it’s great to see the rise of social entrepreneurs, the huge infrastructure of the public sector looks like a ready distribution channel for scaling up innovation.  However, it takes a special kind of innovation to navigate the large and complex institutional mechanisms required to get there. In Scaling Up Innovations with Government, Rahul Nayar and colleagues articulate some of the fundamental reasons governments find innovation difficult, and offer suggestions from successful partnership experiences.

In many countries, social intermediaries are increasing posed as the solution for improving innovation marketplaces and ecosystems. Is this true only in advanced economies like the United Kingdom, or also in a place like Pakistan?  Comparing experiences from both countries in A Tale of Two Intermediaries, Khaleel Tetlay et al assert that with enough support and flexibility, an intermediary can facilitate massive impact in practice and policy. Of course, this is only possible when governments and donors also support and often participate in the innovation process.

In a candid roundtable discussion, with representatives from the Rockefeller Foundation, MIT, SELCO and the Bridgespan Group, we explored the theme of Creating a Funding Environment for Scaling Up Social Impact. In many cases, participants looked for ways to reframe or reimagine the challenges. For example, Zia Khan (Rockefeller) asks, “How do we start to create a sense of pride in scaling up good ideas versus being the one who spotted the great innovation at the early stage and jumped on it?

So, is scaling an art or a science?  To us, it’s both. The diverse experiences offered in the supplement on scaling social innovation certainly exhibit the systems, discipline, and the qualities of well-oiled machines for execution. But on the other hand, all that brilliant engineering might be for nothing if it weren’t for the softer qualities, the eye for unlikely partnerships, cultivation of potential champions, the ability to inspire, and perhaps most importantly, the audacity to believe that transformative change is possible.


Anjali Sarker is a deputy manager at BRAC Social Innovation Lab.

Maria A May is a senior programme manager for BRAC Social Innovation Lab and BRAC Microfinance.

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