The Scaling Imperative

This article was originally published on Social Innovation Generation (SiG) website.

Social Innovation Generation (SiG) is a group who believes that serious social problems can be solved. Our focus is on fostering social innovation to achieve impact, durability and scale by engaging the creativity and resources of all sectors.

Today, it is quite common to come across promising social innovations that tackle important sustainability concerns. The excitement around them floods our newsfeeds, seeps into household conversations, and inspires new generations of social entrepreneurs. What is less common, however, is the wider adaptation and scaling of successful sustainability innovations.

As Christian Seelos says, “scaling is what creates value for innovation.” Cultivating for a single tree is very different from cultivating a forest. When we talk about systems change, we are talking about growing a forest and, therefore, require concerted scaling efforts.

Truly, we cannot miss the forest for the trees.

For instance, the Equiterre Community Support Agriculture (CSA) network has 20 years of experience fostering ecological agriculture, yet to date only supports 100 organic family farms. Despite their proven potential and local success, Equiterre’s limited scale by no means challenges the prevalent food system.

Similar niche socio-ecological innovations in local food, affordable housing, alternative transport, energy consumption and production, social care, and more can be found in different communities across Canada, addressing important challenges facing our societies, but focused at the local level, where they are taken up by a comparatively small group of individuals (early adopters).

Just as the household blue recycling box has become widely adopted by municipal and provincial governments, and a normal part of our day-to-day life, how do we “blue box” other proven innovations for sustainability?

Scaling Innovations for Sustainability

Today, the challenge of climate change demands a great transition, which calls for social innovations that are intelligently networked and will diffuse quickly, at remarkable scales. Scaling innovations – ‘tipping the scales’ – will require new ways of seeing:

  1. It is not about innovating for the sake of innovation. It is about bringing value to promising innovations and the strategic cultivation of the accompanying conditions, structures and practices needed for an innovation to take root and transform day-to-day life.
  2. It is not merely about replication or bringing a niche model to scale. Instead, it is about catalyzing waves of change that can transform current unsustainable socio-economic systems and practices and drive the shift to new sustainable and resilient forms of provision.
  3. Effective scaling involves taking a pilot project’s success and adapting it elsewhere. It involves translating the essence of socio-ecological innovations to new geographic contexts, levels of society, and political arenas through a process of adaptation or reinvention. We must adjust the innovation to the local and, at the same time, ready the specific local conditions to receive the innovation. Adaptation is a twofold process.
  4. Scaling is about impact, not the organization. We need to change our focus fromscaling the size of the innovating organization to insteadscaling the impact of the innovation itself. Increasing organizational size is not the primary goal and is not necessarily critical for bringing sustainability innovations to scale.
  5. Spreading innovations demands rethinking ‘scale’ itself. Typically, we see scale as a nested hierarchy of geographic locations: local, regional, national, international. Spreading an innovation in today’s networked and globalized world, demands seeing ‘scale’ in new ways: ie different scales of systems or networks.

Geographer Doreen Massey’s “global sense of place” recasts what we mean by ‘the local,’ or community, beyond physical location to include our connections to international networks and flows of resources, information, collaborators, risks, and solidarities. Her thinking imagines exchanges of, for example, goods, knowledge, or finances, that are based on local-to-local connections of trust and common value, as examples of ‘local scale.’ Ethically motivated Fair Trade between local consumers and distant producers comes to mind as a type of ‘rescaling.’

6.There are different ways of scaling:

A. Scaling Out: Increases the impact of an innovation through diffusion by adaptation into new sectoral and geographical contexts. While the innovation may spread across geographic/sector boundaries, it typically remains at the “niche” level and is adopted by a small percentage of early adopters in each locale or sector.

Example: Community Land Trusts tackle affordable housing issues by separating the market price of the land from the price of the house. The CLT model takes land out of the real estate market and puts it in a community-partner-controlled trust. CLTs encourage partnerships with government and ensure that taxpayers do not have to increase housing subsidies simply to keep up with the real estate market. CLTs’ success in preserving housing affordability in the U.S. travelled from North America to the UK and beyond, a process captured by Lewis & Conaty, the authors of the Resilience Imperative.

The idea has circled back to Canada and is being explored in Prince George, Victoria, and Vancouver, where the Mayor’s Task Force on Affordable Housing brought together municipal staff, social partners, and VanCity Credit Union to pilot using a CLT for a large affordable housing project in Canada’s most expensive city.

B. Scaling Up: Escalates the impact of a particular innovation on the wider system in which it resides, in order to change that system and reach more people. The innovation scales beyond the niche level, overcoming overarching institutional regimes and pressures that limit the innovation’s spread and may have caused the sustainability problem in the first place.The innovation looks different at each new level of the system, in order to have impact on a different scale.

Example: A local wind mill co-op that provides renewable electricity through community ownership is scaled up via a feed-in tariff that guarantees a price for energy produced that makes the investment sustainable. The FIT came about because of the lobbying work of organizations and intermediaries who built political coalitions in support of the feed-in tariff policy mechanism, which is designed to accelerate uptake of multiple-point energy production by municipalities, private firms, and individuals at provincial or national scales.

C. Scaling Deep: Dedicates time and resources to improve the socialization of an innovation to achieve greater impact within a sector and, ultimately, transform systems. It is not a question of rolling out the innovation in different contexts, it is a question of evolving the innovation for uptake by different groups and system-levels.

This strategy recognizes that innovations and their new practices must be well-supported to achieve scale – there is an important, if mundane, everyday aspect to successful scaling [see Elizabeth Shove for more on Social Practice Theory].

Example: Climate Smart’s carbon accounting initiative for small and medium-sized businesses evolved into a user-friendly online software. This put control over feedback and analysis of improvements into the hands of the individual firms and allowed them to compare carbon and cost-saving performance against similar firms. Improvements in benchmarking, measuring accomplishment, and providing feedback on performance compared to others in their own sector, increased buy-in from managers and workers to alter workplace practices.

If we want to get serious about social innovation for systemic change, we must think about scale from the outset. Will an innovation build, or gain, momentum across and beyond its current scale to potentially topple unsustainable systems?

Catalytic social innovations demand a much more dynamic way of understanding and thinking about scale. By intelligently pursuing the scaling strategies that are most relevant to a particular innovation, we can begin to carve a pathway for transition and bring real value to our sustainability innovations.

SiG Note: One organization that learned through experience to focus on scaling innovation early was the Toronto Atmospheric Fund. SiG profiled the organization in their series on social innovation.