Mythmaking about speed and scale in social innovation

Temples to the Gods of Scale?
Temples to the Gods of Scale?

Yes, but does it scale? – Question asked at nearly every presentation on a social innovation ever made*

It is maddening to see wheels get reinvented and something that is so impactful in one setting never seen outside of that context.  At a time of widespread austerity, global resource constraints, and pressing social problems it is tempting to seek answers that will get us to the biggest, boldest, most ambitious solutions the fastest.

I like to consider myself a patient person, but there are times when I want, need and demand speed. More than most** I get agitated at bureaucratic delays — the kind that draw things out for no reason other than the system it operates in is inefficient, demotivating, disorganized, too large for the scale of action, under-resourced, incompetent or some combination of them all. I’ve seen too much energy dissipated waiting for some metaphorical Godot to arrive. However, there is a difference waiting 8 weeks to get simple paperwork processed that probably takes 20 minutes of staff time and taking the time to do something thoughtfully and appropriately. In this post we look at the thinking behind this need for speed and scale.

And like many of the best intentions, these demands could be paving a road to places we don’t want to go.

Scaling social innovation

The social innovation literature suggests a near fetish for speed and scale (just do a search).

Writing on the McKinsey on Society blog, Steve Davis of PATH writes:

Unless a program can be replicated and sustained on a large scale, it will not be transformational. Identifying and scaling our best solutions has become the sector’s most important challenge. To meet that challenge, we can no longer evaluate programs simply based on how well they’ve performed in a given locality. Instead, we need to factor in their potential to achieve scale. We need to channel resources to the solutions that can produce the most good for the most people. As Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, has pointed out, “Solutions to many of the world’s most difficult social problems don’t need to be invented, they need only to be found, funded, and scaled.” ***

Davis goes on to suggest that scaling can be achieved through four solutions: 1) technology innovation, 2) geopolitical shifts such as the movements in the BRIC nations, 3) cross-sector collaboration, and 4) knowledge sharing. Davis’ argument suggests that if we just shared what we knew, collaborated, used technology and connected to BRIC we’d better achieve the vision of scaling social innovation. Given the age of networked and social media, crowdsourced knowledge and funding platforms and global travel and markets it seems this strategy is already in place. It also supposes a global cultural hegemony that first assumes BRIC is a unified culture and secondly that it’s in sync with the rest of the world. These are widely false.

It may also be worth considering the phrase often attributed to Peter Drucker:

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”

Designing for scale

In a recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Jenna Cullinane speaks to need to design innovations to work at scale from the beginning, rather than taking something small and building up. Looking at education, Cullinane writes:

Unfortunately, our pursuit of scale rarely has a clear road map—more often, it feels like a search for gold at the end of the rainbow. Scholar Archibald Cochrane wryly observed that scaling innovations was like working in a crematorium: So much goes in, and so very little comes out.

Scaling up a promising innovation is difficult under any circumstances. In higher education, it is especially challenging because of decentralized decision-making, antiquated incentive systems, and increasingly unpredictable funding challenges.

Given these inherent complications, it’s arguable that the basic premise of “scaling up”—that one starts with small pilot projects, and then grows the numbers of colleges or individuals served—is untenable. An alternative might be to work at scale.

Drawing on her work with New Mathways Project, a developmental mathematics education project based in Texas, Cullinane suggests three ‘big ideas’ for scaling social innovations:

  1. Design the innovation for scale. Drawing on examples from Thomas Edison and the invention of the modern electric light bulb, an example is provided for how the light bulb was designed explicitly to be used as widely as possible from its beginning, which is what helped it to be adopted so quickly.
  2. Design the initiative for scale. By engaging the intended scaled-up users and partners in the project at the pilot stage, the potential adoption and likelihood of designing the scale right is increased.
  3. Seek permission to scale. Those at all levels of the system need to see the innovation as advantageous and desirable from the beginning and consent at the start of the process rather than imposing top-down approaches.

Another approach is that favoured by Frances Westley, who argues that often social innovations need to scale out before scaling up. Writing with Nino Antadze (PDF), they look at the pathways for scaling that have shown promise. While they acknowledge the promise of scale, the complexity inherent in much of the environments in which social innovations seek to operate or influence requires a scaling process that is much less simplistic than first appears:

Action and impact in complex processes are not governed by straightforward cause-and effect relationships. A good idea, the resources to develop it, leadership capacity, and drive – all  must be combined with opportunity, which can be recognized and seized but not directly  controlled (Westley et al., 2006). Moreover, as the innovation changes and evolves through its  development, other kinds of opportunity become necessary (Bacon et al., 2008). Durability,  scale, and impact depend not only on the degree of engagement with the broader social context but upon engagement of a different kind. – Westley & Antadze -The Innovation Journal (italics in original)

What might that engagement look like and is that the same as scaling up?

Speeding into myth

I recently wrote about similar dominant ideologies in the area of design and how the dominant discourse is on rapid prototyping and how speed is not always linked to better products. What is important is taking the necessary time — whatever that time is — to make the appropriate decisions about the benefits and consequences associated with any designed product. Failure to do so could yield unintended consequences that are harmful.

Like with scale, the idea of speed is not inherently bad if well-considered. Who would not want to share the benefits of something effective with as many as possible as quickly as we can? However, the ethics of scaling social interventions depends on our ability to assess the potential impacts of our design prior to scaling. The three point approach suggested by Jenna Cullinane is one way to go about scaling up, however it seems that approach is impractical for exceptionally large, complex environments — those that Steve Davis writes about and perhaps even the kind of settings Frances Westley set her paper against.

But behind the discussion of scale is a set of assumptions that challenges us to ask a bigger question about why we push to scale so much in the first place and why it spoken about as a necessary feature of a successful social innovation. Consultant and social innovation scholar Peter Block, speaking to a webinar audience in March on stewardship, went so far as to say:

“Taking innovations to scale as being necessary is part of a patriarchal, over-rated myth” – Peter Block

Patriarchy and scale: Questioning our ambition

Small is not sexy. It is hard to market. It is nearly impossible to become a big name, make lots of money, get invited to be a keynote speaker, and sell books when you operate at a local level. These outward, extroverted qualities are often associated with patriarchal values. The sheer flippancy of the way the question posed at the start of this post is asked at gatherings of social innovators illustrates how poorly considered it is and how embedded patriarchal values are within the social innovation sector (like many others).

Just as we ask “can it scale?” could we ask of a social innovation, we could equally contemplate the question: “how can we make the impact deeper?”

Or “how can the impact linger, longer?”

Or “what is needed to nurture this innovation so that it meets the needs of all its intended to influence in its current design, equitably?”

Or “why might this intervention be inappropriate to take beyond its current context?”

These questions are not sexy, but are as valid as scale. Perhaps we need to consider why we go so quickly to scale and speed when we critically assess a social innovation. Instead of it being a ‘pat’ or standard question, why might we not ask any or all of these of everything we do?

The naivete behind the notion that we can quickly import innovations from contexts like North America (specifically, Canada and the United States) or parts of Europe and transplant them easily into Africa, India or China is striking. Too little do we imagine the opposite happening, even though there is some promise in certain innovations transporting from developing economies back to fully developed ones. Our desire for global impact is vastly out of sync with our knowledge of global influences and what actually causes change, what the outcomes are, and how they manifest over time.

A simple look at the Arab Spring movement and what it has (and hasn’t) achieved and what it hasn’t suggests there are few easy social / innovation imports that globally work at scale.

Canadian singer-songwriter Matthew Good‘s song 21st Century Living captures this quest for bigger, better ambition  by asking about the costs of ambition****. Is bigger, better?

Some further questions to consider are:

  • What does it really mean to scale?
  • What is the appropriate speed at which a scaled intervention should develop?
  • Do you know the system dynamics of the culture and economy of both settings you wish to scale in before you start building up?
  • Do you have permission?
  • Is the quest to scale driven by the genuine needs and interests of others or yours?
  • How can we recognize and celebrate social innovations that scale small and large with equal verve?
  • Can a program be transformational (as Steve Davis asks for) at a small scale?

Lastly: are we building temples to ourselves or the gods or to those we claim to serve (and is one leading us to ruins?)

Are we building temples to Gods or ruins for people?
Are we building temples to Gods or ruins for people?

* I wish this was some joke, but I can’t think of the last time I was at a presentation on a social innovation topic or program where this wasn’t asked or part of the presentation itself.

** – seriously. You want to see me go off on a rant, just talk to me about the way our health and education systems transform mundane, simple procedures into an epic, confused, incomplete and inspiration-suppressing mess by burying well-intentioned, energetic people in senseless and unnecessary paperwork.

*** – See more at:

**** – For a unique experience of this song play it (from the album Avalanche) while watching this found footage video art piece which was set to it.

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