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Reimagining Scale for Societal Transformation

When it comes to scale, many organisations struggle to grow their impact beyond a certain threshold. This is particularly the case for organisations trying to find solutions to deep-rooted and fundamental societal issues such as education, healthcare, financial inclusion, water, sanitation and sustainable livelihoods . How do we get innovations to grow, reach more people, and to make a greater impact for diverse contexts?  The traditional way of doing things are fraught with challenges and can get resource intensive. For example, many struggle to convert individual stories of transformation into scalable models, or even find working alongside new technologies a challenge, and many face resistance when trying to make them work for diverse local contexts.

Scale is a hard nut to crack – more so, if one is looking to scale at a national level, or population scale.

Ankur Vora, who heads the Strategy and Innovation team at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation explains. “Often when we do things, we do them village by village, or community by community, and it works in that setting… and the scaling conversation comes as an afterthought… and that does not work because then the solutions developed are very locally designed and require a fair amount of local customisation and local capacity.” Or, solutions are top down, and often with centrally produced and centrally innovated solutions, there are distribution problems.

Without addressing these ‘failures’ it is very hard for any solution to scale. Isabel Guerrero, from IMAGO, an organisation that helps grassroots organisations scale their impact, tells us that there are three ways that organisations can scale:

  • Firstly, they can simply grow in size, as many organisations across the world have (think of BRAC in Bangladesh, which reaches over 135 million people today).
  • Or organisations can build replicable models, like many organisations working in microfinance have.
  • The third way – and this is perhaps the most sustainable – is where organisations collaborate with each other and build networks that life the entire system up.

The third way of scaling, building networks by collaborating with various stakeholders in the ecosystem, could prove to be more apt for organizations looking to scale at a national level.

“The places where we have gotten these things right are the places where we’ve thought about scale right from the beginning, where we’ve thought about a platform that connects the solution side with the local demand, capacity and customization side and when we end up doing things like that it works,” Ankur adds. In other works, thinking about ‘what works at scale’ at the starting point rather than ‘scaling what works’ as an afterthought.

In order to reach population scale, leveraging technology to bring in platform perspectives has the potential to devise interoperable solutions that can be locally customised. This would mean that individual organisations would achieve scale, while shifting the entire environment, and engendering systemic change.

Reducing Frictions to Scale:

Societal Platform thinking probes us to relook at the way we think about the holy grail of change: How co we catalyze ecosystems to resolve societal challenges at scale, speed, sustainably? It proposes that rather than thinking of how to ‘solve a problem’, it seeks to figure out how to ‘resolve the frictions that cause the problem’.

Shankar Maruwada, the CEO of EkStep Foundation, talks about reducing frictions through his experiences at EkStep. EkStep has taken on an audacious goal – that of improving literacy and numeracy by increasing access to learning opportunities for 200 million children in India. And it’s clear that the challenge is an exciting one.

Yet,  Shankar tells us, for a certain class of problems, especially the big, complex ones like reducing poverty or imparting good quality education at population scale, no single organisation or idea can solve them entirely. Education is a good example.  It is the classic complex, wicked problem – with many moving pieces, and with many people and organisations already working on some part of the solution, from the government, to civil society organisations, to the private sector. And every organisation working in the space would possibly be a small player in the wider ecosystem, chipping away at one aspect of the problem.

Early on in their journey, EkStep realised that a systems approach that would help achieve their goal in the chosen time-frame, required reducing the underlying frictions in the system and one that encouraged all players to co-create. “Our mission, [or] what we can control is giving 200 million children in india access to learning opportunities, [and so] resolving the friction of access to 200m children is our mission. EkStep started working on addressing the audacious goal they had taken on using what Shankar, and the wider team calls a ‘do-think-do’ approach.

When the government of India decided to launch a National Digital Platform, DIKSHA, to reach out to 10 million teachers, they decided to leverage SunBird, an open source platform for learning and management designed to support a wide range of applications and solutions built by EkStep. DIKSHA was launched in 2017 and by the end of 2018 one of their flagship programs, Energised Textbooks, was launched in a number of states. It addresses a key friction, that of limited access to good quality educational content. The solution was surprisingly elegant: textbooks and teaching material were printed with QR codes that people could use to access a world of digital content, customised by every state, curated by local teachers and supported by the national platform, and all at once, a commonly found public good – the ubiquitous textbook becomes a gateway to access what is very scarce, high quality content.

Every school is different with their own unique requirements. Energised Textbooks was imagined as basic building block that schools can tailor to their own environments from individual teachers enthusing their teaching with additional content, to schools could set up e-learning labs, to children taking learning out of the classroom.

While DIKSHA is one of the early instances of a Societal Platform approach to addressing some of India’s greatest challenges, since it was launched, the ecosystem to support education through a platform – one that brings together society, markets and the government, is beginning to flourish.

Co-Creating Impact at Scale

The need for a systemic approach is echoed by large development organisations that look at the big challenges and try to see how frictions can be reduced to make the system smoother and for all players to interact with each other better. Robert Palacios, the global lead for pensions and social insurance at the World Bank points to the fact that many social programs that should, in theory, speak to each other, often don’t. “What we often see is on our side and the government’s side is that we have programs that are created in isolation from sort of the big picture and we end up with a lot of siloes… and what we’ve seen is we’ve evolved to support these programs in a country like India, but we don’t always connect the dots between one program and another program, [yet] it turns out that they all sort of need the same type of basic infrastructure to function efficiently,” he says. Part of this is that programs were not built in tandem, but also the fact that people tend to work in isolation, focusing on only their piece of the puzzle. “We really are only now realising how we have to unbundle the delivery system of the social programs and create the foundational layer that all the programs can ride on and make sure these systems are interoperable and talk to each other.”, he affirms.

Achieving impact at population scale is an audacious goal. This will require us to kindle a sense of urgency in all actors of the ecosystem to co-create solutions that allow diversity to play with speed, at scale, in a sustainable manner.