The transition from ‘selling a solution’ to achieve real systemic change

Blogpost by Floortje Jacobs

The concept of “scaling” or “scaling up” is increasingly popular in international development efforts, as it has the connotation of providing the answer in bringing technical solutions to a large number of people. However, the popularity of the term is not necessarily matched with in-depth research or approaches. In general, there is a tendency to associate scaling with strategies for (inclusive) business growth; these strategies usually involve market-driven approaches to reach impact, with a lead firm or NGO promoting a specific solution in search of a market (share). This is what we call ‘horizontal scaling’ as such approaches are mainly focused on simply reaching large numbers of people.

In the past months, PPPLab has specifically looked at the role that PPPs can play in scaling processes by interviewing thought leaders as well as studying a large number of PPP cases. PPPLab’s study found that in many cases achieving significant degrees of scale also requires dealing with other system levels: not just spreading the solution or practice but also changing the ways that organisations and institutions function to enable that solution or practice. This is also labelled as ‘vertical scaling’; changing the rules of the game in a specific sector.

Figure: The relation of number of people reached and system levels (PPPLab 2016)


Scaling access to sanitation also requires work on finance and policy, among others (Photo by: Sanergy)

A classic example is sanitation; while an NGO can try to raise awareness and build sanitation facilities for local communities, it would greatly help if national policies also aim for large-scale sanitation adoption (for example through national awareness campaigns) or if financial institutions make the facilities affordable by offering sanitation loans.

It doesn’t need explanation that many problems addressed in development, such as water and food insecurity, are ‘wicked problems’, involving many interests and stakeholders. Naturally, scaling innovative solutions in such playing-fields is not a simple matter of ‘selling a solution’; large-scale adoption of improved practices will only take place when we also address ‘higher’ system levels, as we also need to embed those practices in policies, institutions and rules of the game. In other words, we need rich strategies that both involve horizontal as well as vertical dimensions of scaling.

From this perspective, it seems only natural that partnerships are needed for such scaling efforts. Bringing together different actors and drivers can help to address the various dimensions of scaling; with businesses, certain types of NGOs and public campaigns usually driving the business approach/horizontal dimensions of scale; while public actors, the more activist/advocacy NGOs, and some business leaders driving the vertical dimensions. Together, these different actors are better equipped to reach ‘higher levels’, which enables them to change policies and institutionalize new innovative practices. Together, they are better equipped in addressing barriers to reach large and sustainable impact. Together, public-private partnerships can make a real change.