The idea of scaling or scaling up has become a kind of Holy Grail for the field of social innovation in recent years. Academics, bloggers and even management consultants have enthusiastically adopted this language to talk about growth and the idea that growth represents ultimate success in the field.
But how helpful is this way of framing the goal of all social innovations? I’d argue that adopting this language has implications for how broadly we view social innovation. And this should give us reason to be cautious before jumping on the scaling bandwagon.
First, the concept of scaling has strong connotations of standardization. It has its origins in manufacturing, where the aim is to achieve economies of scale by spreading fixed costs across more units of output. But in the messy social field, the potential for standardization is more limited. Here, concepts of reinvention and adaptation will be at least as important, if not more so, than standardization. Social outcomes are not products that can be easily made according to a formula and packaged. This is especially clear in the context of innovation in public services. Scaling might be an appropriate metaphor for a 20th century model based around delivering standardized packages of care, but it sits at odds with current discussions of personalization and co-production.
Second, discussion of scaling up often neglects the inherently political nature of much social innovation. While everyone is happy to get behind social projects when they’re small and niche, if they are successful, it’s inevitable they will cause disruption for existing institutions. This means there will be conflicting demands for power and resources. This likely conflict is poorly captured in narratives about scaling up, which can suggest a mechanistic, controllable process.
Third, scaling strongly suggests starting small and growing larger. In some instances this will be just the right picture. For new social enterprises, growing into a sustainable operation is a key focus, especially in the early years. But not all social innovations are social enterprises or grow like social enterprises. In many instances, innovation needs to be rolled out or implemented within established systems or institutions.
How important are the words we choose to use to talk about growth or success of social innovations? The current enthusiasm for scaling matters because it points us toward a larger issue. It’s a framing that works best when we’re talking about social enterprises. And that encourages us to equate the whole field of social innovation with the project of social enterprises. But I doubt even the most dedicated defenders of the social enterprise movement would argue that all social issues can be solved through the growth of socially focused organizations operating in the market. As Roberto Mangabeira Unger argued at last month’s Social Frontiers conference, those of us who identify with the social innovation movement ought to have “structural ambitions.” That clearly goes beyond supporting the growth of social enterprise organizations, however fantastic the work they are doing.
When we talk about “scaling a social innovation,” we could be referring to projects as diverse as growing a profit-making consumer business, developing a network for sharing goods online, or implementing a new kind of personalized care within the U.K. National Health Service. These are radically different kinds of endeavor that will grow and spread in very different ways. As such, they will require different frames and language—in some cases scaling, but in others diffusion, implementation, rollout, adoption and so on. If we want to talk meaningfully about the growth of social innovations, the first step is to be clear about exactly what kind of innovation we mean.
This piece was first printed as part of the “Thought for the Week” series on Innovation Hub, part of The Guardian’s Social Enterprise Network.