Three 'musts' for transformative solutions

14th May, 2014 by Anna Birney

Anna Birney and Geraldine Gilbert share key insights from Forum for the Future's Scaling Up Impact project.

Floods, water scarcity, biodiversity loss, obesity, hunger, disease, inequality… Looking hard at the major pressures facing our global society, can we honestly say that all the time, money and effort put into making the world a better place are having enough impact?

There’s no lack of professional, ambitious and experienced organisations focusing their expertise on the big sustainability and development challenges, from girls’ education and slum sanitation to access to clean energy or financial services. Many of them have been working on it for decades. Equally, there’s no lack of workable solutions, whether it’s solar lamps, micro-credit schemes or agro-forestry techniques. So what’s missing from the picture?

This is the question that the Scaling Up Impact project, a collaboration between Forum for the Future and the Shell Foundation, has been trying to address over the past year, to better understand what achieving impact at scale really looks like and how to bring it about more effectively, by taking a deliberate, planned approach, both as individual organisations and collectively.

Given the complexity, urgency and ripple effects of major issues, from climate change to obesity, any attempts to solve them need to be systemic: no single organisation or solution will get to the heart of it. And given the number of people affected, both now and in future, solutions need to become mainstream as quickly as possible. There isn’t time to think small or for everyone to make the same mistakes over and over: we need to get to a ‘new normal’, fast.

In particular, Scaling Up Impact explores marketbased solutions. Businesses are increasingly feeling the consequences of global challenges, but also seeing the commercial opportunities in addressing them – from first-mover advantage to more resilient value chains and relationships at all levels. The need for systemic change offers businesses an ever greater role to play in scaling up viable solutions that combine positive social and environmental impact with financial success.

Scaling Up Impact draws on the insights of a wealth of existing research and analysis (see, for example, Oxfam America’s work on market-based approaches, Shell Foundation’s report on enterprise solutions, or insights from the Business Innovation Facility) to provide practical ways to overcome the barriers to progress, for both the more experienced and those new to this agenda.

These barriers can be very practical ones – for example, designing pilot initiatives to test specifically for how solutions will work at scale; making a different kind of business case for investment or for collaboration between businesses when competition is the norm; or securing financing for very long-term projects with unclear or uncertain later stages.

But there are also ‘soft’ barriers: cultural and human factors that can get in the way of change. Addressing complex challenges means working in new ways, sometimes managing complex and (very) long-term projects and relationships, with multiple stakeholders at different stages. You have to overcome the fear of these projects failing, and persuade people to commit to the process for the long haul. It can mean finding partners with the right skills and interest to take a solution forward, and overcoming the ‘not invented here’ syndrome that can be an issue for organisations that haven’t been involved from the start.

Another barrier is the need for a better shared understanding of how to measure and value ‘impact’ itself, especially as qualitative, large-scale and systemic impact can be much harder to assess than quantitative, shorter-term ‘project deliverables’ or indicators. Edward Hanrahan, Director of ClimateCare agrees, but is optimistic that such questions are beginning to be addressed: “I think the government, the aid sectors and businesses are slowly moving more towards a more results-based system for development outcomes. This will help to catalyse this market for solutions, because it will give us an income stream to really compete for, and start to bring costs down through efficiencies.”

There are some success stories to learn from, where different organisations and activities have come together to achieve wider systemic change. In public health, for example, concerted collaborative efforts successfully led to the global eradication of smallpox, and, more recently, multiple public and private sector interventions have driven through legislation to make smoke-free public spaces the new norm in developed economies, reducing smoking overall.

Another notable success is increasing access to pro-poor, micro-level financial services – from the development of the Grameen bank in Bangladesh in the 1970s, providing micro-loans to millions and in particular to women, through to the recent success of mobile-phone based banking such as M-Pesa in Kenya and elsewhere. A further example is the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)’s work to build a market for sustainable fish, with a scheme that now covers more than 10% of all wild-caught seafood. Both Grameen and the MSC share a very deliberate approach to addressing a large-scale challenge, with a clear goal in mind of what success looks like (for the MSC, ultimately that’s 100% sustainable fishing of the world’s oceans).

Three ‘musts’ for change

Drawing on what works well, and on the experiences of leading organisations around the world, the Scaling Up Impact project has identified three areas that require concerted activity if marketbased solutions are to reach scale: generating better products and services; building and enabling markets around those products and services; and addressing the wider context through market acceleration. Collective experience shows that only addressing one of these areas on its own will not be enough to guarantee scale, however well it’s done.

So what do we mean by ‘better products and services’? An important factor is designing individual solutions with scale in mind, by improving existing products and services or deliberately disrupting the status quo. It also means raising the bar across the whole market through standards and ratings. For example, Envirofit, in partnership with the Shell Foundation, designs clean cookstoves to tackle indoor air pollution in emerging markets, while the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves drives the development of international standards to push the whole cookstove sector in the right direction.

It is then essential to build markets for these solutions and increase access to them, for example by making them easy for others to replicate, or by piggy-backing on existing infrastructure and resources. It will also mean looking at particular raw materials or processes in supply chains, and creating ‘market pull’ by encouraging demand or changing consumer behaviours.

As Chris West, Director of the Shell Foundation, explains: “Social innovation does not happen easily and achieving scale or replication at an industry level is rare. With clean cookstoves [and Envirofit], designing a product that low-income consumers both wanted and could afford was simply not enough; we needed to build an entirely new value chain to foster demand, reach rural customers and solve a host of other barriers to achieve any sort of scale.”

Targeted partnerships can help cut roll-out costs. Unilever’s recent Lifebuoy hygiene education programmes weren’t proving cost-effective. By working with strategic partners, from the health ministry in Indonesia to UNICEF, Unilever has been able to cut programme costs by a factor of 10, and therefore take the impact of Lifebuoy soap on health and hygiene challenges to a much greater scale.

Finally, market acceleration might involve collaborations and coalitions that catalyse change across an issue or an industry, or influence the broader policy or regulatory context through advocacy and campaigns. Take the global Sustainable Shipping Initiative, which brings together the designers, owners, users and beneficiaries of the shipping world to drive improvements across the entire industry, or LAUNCH, the collaboration between Nike, USAID and NASA that’s revolutionising the materials industry, by incubating innovations and influencing the wider market to take them to scale.

While there’s plenty more work to be done, the team behind Scaling Up Impact has uncovered an encouraging appetite for systemic approaches and collective impact, among foundations, government, NGOs and businesses, that recognise the need to work more collaboratively with others to succeed, and have a real drive to do so. Foundations are keen to be more than funders while supporting solutions that can be financially self-sustaining; businesses want to bridge what some see as the ‘innovation frontier’ by bringing environmental, social and commercial impact together.

As Chris West says, “We certainly couldn’t do this alone. If you want to achieve lasting global impact you need to take a systemic approach to test new ideas and to build new markets around those that work – and that means looking beyond short-term projects to far more effective forms of cross-sector collaboration.”

So what next? Forum is using all these insights to build and share simple tools and guidance to help others take a more deliberate approach when bringing market-based solutions to scale.

Anna Birney, Head of Forum’s System Innovation Lab says, “We’ve seen a clear need to broker new kinds of partnerships and collaborations for collective action. We’re exploring how to do this in very practical ways, enabling businesses, foundations and others to come together around these complex challenges for greater collective impact, at scale, faster.”

Anna Birney and Geraldine Gilbert lead the Scaling Up Impact project at Forum for the Future. Find out more.

Photo credit: Omeproka

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