This article originally appeared in the Guardian on 17/04/14.
1. Focus on Generating User Value
Social innovations that scale have an explicit focus on generating user value. A consistent feature of any innovation that reaches scale is that it has created value for the user – as determined by that user. This might seem obvious, but this isn’t about whether the approach will benefit that user – it’s whether they’d choose to use it.
There are so many well-intentioned projects that don’t reach the necessary scale because they don’t directly create something that people will choose to use. History Pin is a good example of something that has done this well – designed as an engaging and enjoyable experience of sharing and viewing pictures that show how places change over time. Its social aim is to create intergenerational conversations – which it does among the 50,000+ users. It grew to that number by focusing on creating something engaging for the people who use it, and in doing so “scaled” a model of intergenerational interaction.
2. Link Ideas to Existing Behaviours
If you can tap into existing behaviours, then the innovation is easier to sustain as the necessary practice already takes place; and, if you can tap into mass behaviours, then the innovation is more likely to scale.
One such example is Crowdring, which makes use of missed calls as a way of communicating. Using Crowdring, social justice activist Anna Hazare amassed 35m missed calls to show support for an anti-corruption bill. (Editor’s note: Innovation Labs’ Moodbug’s key feature taps into existing iPhone user behaviour).
3. Don’t Rush It
Allowing time to test and grow is also necessary to scale technological innovation. Digital initiatives usually take between five and seven years before they operate at scale – which is similar to for-profit tech organisations. This requires more than an expectation of funding – rather it requires, testing, developing, piloting, growing and so on. It takes time to grow successful innovations.
4. Use the Right Metrics to Judge Success
To understand how to grow these innovations requires a focus on using the right metrics to judge success. If we expect to see robust measures of social value after six-12 months of testing, we’re almost certain to see many failures – indeed more than we should. Having the right measures – that at first judge potential, and then move toward recognising whether it is being realised, is really important in providing the conditions – and judgment points – of whether an innovation can scale.
5. Find the Right Route to Scale
Once those early measures show potential, finding the right route to scale up is also important. For example, Mozilla’s Open Badges are a new digital currency which work with teachers and charities to recognise young people’s skills and talents. This initiative is in a position to scale because it is a technical standard that can be used by many people in very different ways. This is a far more scalable approach than attempting to, for example, create certificates for every education provider in the country. Whether growing an organisation, delivering products or services, or shaping policies and standards, there are many varied routes to scale to explore.
6. Accept Dissatisfaction
But finally, there’s also dissatisfaction. Many people share an aspiration to address some of the most pressing social challenges, but the most persistent, tenacious and creative social technology entrepreneurs share a refusal to allow injustice or inequality to continue. This drive is at the heart of any social technology venture, and I hope we can continue to understand the conditions to support them to achieve the necessary scale.