Developing an Approach to Scale

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Working with the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, this April sees us launching an ambitious new area of work, building on five years’ experience in innovation management within the Humanitarian Innovation Fund and beyond, to supporting taking initiatives to scale. We are seeking to understand and support the process of scaling innovations with the potential to bring about transformational change in the humanitarian system, for the benefit of the millions across the globe affected by crises and disasters each year. To this end, we offer a discussion of what we mean by ‘scale’, and how intend to operationalise it.

The HIF is the leading cross-sectoral initiative supporting humanitarian innovation, and it’s our mission to support innovations that improve humanitarian response. The range of innovations supported is broad, from the design and prototyping of wheelchairs suitable for use in emergencies, to the development of software to support the collection and exchange of crisis data. Much of our work over the last five years has focused on the early stages of innovation, a pattern that is seen in many other parts of the sector.

As our work has developed and the sector has begun investing more in innovation, there has been a collective recognition of the need to take early stage innovations and take them to scale, growing and sharing what works, so good ideas have the greatest impact on the lives of those affected by crises and disasters. There is, however, collective confusion both about what ‘scale’ means in the context of humanitarian innovation, as well as how best it can be achieved.

What do we mean by Scale?

For us, ‘scale’ means building on demonstrated successes to ensure that solutions reach their maximum potential, have the greatest possible impact, and lead to widespread change.

In the case of the humanitarian system, this is about having the maximum possible benefit for those people caught up in crises and disasters, saving lives and reduces the suffering caused by humanitarian emergencies, and contributing to a sustainable humanitarian system with affected people at its heart.

On one level, this is about securing sustainability for new ideas: ensuring they have the necessary financial resources and other capacities needed both to survive and thrive in the long term. This might be achieved through regular grant funding, charging service fees, or selling a product or other models. Beyond this however, there are much more complex systemic changes that will likely need to happen if new ideas (perceived often as high risk), are to become established: if successful exceptions are to become new rules.

But is also about adapting and reinforcing promising solutions so that they can thrive in new contexts, be they geographic, organisational, political, social or cultural. It’s clear to us that scale isn’t simply about making something bigger, but evolving it to be impactful in more places. It is also clear to us that there is no single best route to scale, and each journey to scale will be unique and complex. A central element of this HIF initiative will be working with promising ideas to developed strategies that will best equip them to attempt the complex journey of growth.

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Despite this, our experience and the literature suggest that there are different potential routes to scale. These might include organisational growth or geographical expansion, but equally might be building new networks and partnerships for delivery, or influencing and supporting change in others (for example governments). Exploring these will help individual innovators better understand what strategy will suit them, and in turn how to make it a reality.

Scaling an innovation represents a particular challenge in the humanitarian system, and is a new type of innovation management challenge. We believe that beyond additional resources, success will require a focused strategy to scale and tailored support for the unique scaling challenges of individual innovations. Ideas must be at the right stage in their development, have demonstrated evidence of success to date, as well as an understanding of the challenges they still face and how they might be overcome. Not all good ideas are right for scaling, and it shouldn’t be seen as a default option, but although some successful innovations will remain context-specific, we believe there may be many others that can be taken to scale.

We expect that this effort to take innovations to scale will present new challenges that are different and more complex than those found in early stage pilots. To help develop these practices, and gather evidence about what works, ongoing learning and reflection will be key. As we move forward, we will be working with innovation teams to gather practical evidence around the scale journey, building knowledge of the specific barriers and challenges. Central to this will be the collaborative multi-stakeholder approach that underpins Elrha’s work, which we hope will lead to both the acceleration of specific innovations, and a wider understanding of what is needed to bring about an agile and capable humanitarian system in the future.


Readings suggestions

Hoffman, K., and Gray, I. (2015) ‘Case Study: Financing in the Humanitarian Innovation Ecosystem’.

Jenkins, B. and Ishikawa, E. (2010) ‘Scaling Up Inclusive Business: Advancing the Knowledge and Action Agenda’.

Koh, H., Hegde N. and Karamachamdami A. (2014) ‘Beyond the Pioneer: Getting inclusive industries to scale’.

Koh H., Karamchandani A., and Katz R. (2012), ‘From Blueprint to Scale’.

Mair, J. and Sezgi, F. (2011) ‘To Control or Not Control: A Coordination Perspective to Scaling’.

McClure, D. and Gray, I. (2015) ‘Innovations Missing Middle’.

McClure, D. and Gray, I. (2015)Managing the Journey to Scale Up Innovation’.

Nesta (2014), ‘Making it Big, Strategies for scaling social innovations’.

Nesta (2007) ‘In and out of sync. The challenge of growing social innovations.’

Obrecht, A. (2016) ‘More than just luck: Innovation in humanitarian action.’ HIF/ALNAP Study.

Path (2014), ‘The Journey to Scale: Moving Together Past Digital Health Pilots’.

17 Ways to Take Your Innovation to Scale, Guardian

Elrha is a registered charity in England and Wales (1177110).

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