Social innovation is fast becoming considered a critical way in which society’s problems can be tackled, providing effective outcomes that serve the greater good. Social innovations change lives, and social innovation is not new. For example, Nesta, a firm advocate of social innovation argues that pre-school education, first aid and e-petitions are all examples of social innovations. However, Nesta also asserts that scaling these types of innovations can be very difficult, and even inappropriate in some cases, given context. However, in some cases small social innovations can lead to tremendous change if scaled effectively. This can be challenging but very worthwhile.
Nesta seeks to help social innovations to scale where appropriate. Writing on this subject for Nesta in 2014, Madeleine Gabriel argues that:
“Social innovations can be said to have scaled when their impact grows to match the level of need”.
Finding strategies that can help social innovations to scale to an appropriate level can be harder, and Nesta has developed some suggestions for achieving this. One is working out what the social, organisational and personal goals are of scaling a social innovation and getting these in place at the outset. The second is determining what to scale. The third consideration is the route that will be taken to scale, and the fourth is gearing up to deliver a scaling strategy.
In particular, the route that will be used to scale up an innovation can be difficult to determine, but Nesta offers a variety of different options that can be used in conjunction with another in some cases. The first is called “Influence and Advise” and is based in using campaigning, consultancy and training approaches. It requires public speaking and publishing as well as communicating with and engaging with policy makers, and training people. The second option is “Build a delivery network”. In this case the social innovator might consider models such as licensing and franchising, or collaboration with partners. In this case, training might also be a consideration, but also community building could be important. There is a need with this route to use approaches that will help to transfer knowledge and share good practice as well as to raise awareness. A third approach is to “form strategic partnerships” that can scale the innovation. Options here could include making strategic alliances, using another organisation’s infrastructure or approaches such as joint ventures or mergers. With these approaches it is critical to develop a common set of values and mission. Alternatively a fourth route is called “grow and organisation to deliver”. This involves setting up new branches or increasing a team’s delivery capacity. It requires building up staff and investment and developing capacity and systems.
Critically when social innovators want to scale up an idea, regardless of the type of route taken to do so, a very important factor is managing supply and demand. It requires making sure that there is the demand in place for the innovation, and then ensuring that supply can definitely be delivered to meet this demand. This may require some education of the target audience, as it is not necessarily a given that everyone will realise that they would like or need a particular innovation or how that innovation is specifically designed to help them improve their lives.
Scaling up also creates choices that have to be made that can be difficult to determine the best answer to. For example, identifying the best way to control the scaling of the innovation can be a real challenge. This is in terms of quality, reach and pace of scaling. While closer controls could increase quality, being open to adaptation might potentially decrease quality but subsequently increase effectiveness. While controls may reduce the speed at which a social innovation scales, it can sometimes be better to do that to ensure that overall the innovation is more scalable in the longer term.
Scaling up can also mean that skills need to change and develop according to Gabriel. Competencies that are required to get an idea off the ground are different from those that are used to develop operational efficiency and sustainability at a later stage of the process when an organisation is more established. This means that social innovators need to be able to develop these skills themselves or alternatively secure people with these skills that can help.
Paula Newton is a business writer, editor and management consultant with extensive experience writing and consulting for both start-ups and long established companies. She has ten years management and leadership experience gained at BSkyB in London and Viva Travel Guides in Quito, Ecuador, giving her a depth of insight into innovation in international business. With an MBA from the University of Hull and many years of experience running her own business consultancy, Paula’s background allows her to connect with a diverse range of clients, including cutting edge technology and web-based start-ups but also multinationals in need of assistance. Paula has played a defining role in shaping organizational strategy for a wide range of different organizations, including for-profit, NGOs and charities. Paula has also served on the Board of Directors for the South American Explorers Club in Quito, Ecuador.