Scale - how social innovations grow to create systems change

Abstracts and Articles

From total innovation to system change: the case of the Registered Disability savings plan, Westley, F, N. Antadze 

Five Configurations for scaling up social innovation: case examples of nonprofit organizations from Canada, Westley, F, N. Antadze, D. Riddell, K. Robinson, S. Geobey 

Surmountable Chasms: networks and social innovation for resilient systems  Moore, M.L., F. Westley 

From total innovation to systems change - the case of the registered disability savings plan


At PLAN they realized early on that advocacy work and the focus on human rights alone would not change the lives of those who had disabilities because it did not change the fact that many were dealing with issues of isolation and loneliness. A significant moment of transition came in this movement when the realization occurred that they did not want to improve the lives of more people with disabilities, but, rather, make a difference for all of them. This broader vision would ask that they challenge the existing system and shift to work at the policy level to address the underlying structures that fostered the exclusion of the disabled in the current system. They identified the financial future of children with disabilities as a key lever in creating significant and positive change for all those with disabilities and their families. The creation of a new financial mechanism was a disruptive innovation in itself, but the process that created that tool sparked a new dialogue about the notion of belonging nationwide and forced a deeper look at other connected social issues that were in dire need of systemic responses. 

This case study highlights the critical role of an institutional entrepreneur to work across scales to create change in political, cultural, and economic systems. It showcases watershed moments of recognizing openings in the system and managing emergence. And it offers insight on how changing one part of a complex system can have influence on multiple, interconnected parts in unintended ways to create significant systems change. 

From total innovation to systems change (PDF)


Five configurations for scaling up social innovation - case examples from nonprofit organizations from Canada


In this paper, the authors investigate how successful social entrepreneurs navigate the challenges of scaling up their social innovation. They focus on the skills and approaches that are necessary for moving from a scaling out trajectory to one of scaling up, and argue that the ability to see the larger context and to recognize and seize opportunities is central for successful scaling up efforts. Scaling up is defined in this paper as identifying opportunities and barriers at broad institutional scales with the goal of challenging the system that created the social problem in the first place. Scaling out is defined as the replication and dissemination of programs, ideas, or processes with the intention to affect more people and more communities. Whereas the authors distinguish scaling up and scaling out trajectories, they conclude that these notions are often linked. The case studies reveal that organizations that later pursued scaling up efforts started with scaling out strategies and succeeded in replicating and disseminating their innovation, thus building up reputation, legitimacy, and experience that served as a platform to commence a scaling up pathway. 

The authors explain that in order to scale up social innovation, that is, to change the institutional landscape, social entrepreneurs need to embrace a new role of institutional entrepreneur. The major difference between successful social entrepreneurs and institutional entrepreneurs is the ability to manage the context and orchestrate interplay between the openings and actions that can move social innovation forward.  

Five configurations for scaling up social innovation (PDF)


Surmountable chasms - networks and social innovation for resilient systems


Complex problems are difficult to define and are often the result of rigid social structures that effectively act as “traps.” Networks are increasingly believed to be an alternative means of social organization, which may be essential to creating innovation. But Moore and Westley argue that central actors (referred here to as institutional entrepreneurs) with strategic agency are needed to mobilize networks to move beyond the traps and towards social innovations that address complex problems. By examining cases of institutional entrepreneurship, the authors found that strategic agency—enabled by specific skill sets to create and leverage ties, gain influence, and maximize opportunities—is required for innovations to cross scales, thereby increasing resilience. 

The authors found that strategic agency within networks is enabled by the following complex skill sets:  

  1. Pattern recognition: identifying patterns that cause a rigidity trap where continuous innovation is repressed and seeking to change policy and patterns of belief. 
  2. Relationship building and brokering: visionary and strategic thinking for building an effective network with intentionality, attention to cultivating strong bonds and clear values, and knowing which type of relationships to mobilize for innovations to cross scales at specific times.  
  3. Knowledge and resource brokering: the ability to understand specialized knowledge and reframe the discourse and/or translate the subject matter to make it comprehensible, accessible, and engaging for others, particularly decision-makers; identify policy windows; and, most importantly, lessen resistance to a new idea to gain support and resources. 
  4. Network recharging: visionary leadership that motivates and inspires people to work toward a mission by providing context and meaning to their efforts.  

In sum, the presence of social networks is not enough. Institutional entrepreneurs with strategic agency often work in obscurity to help innovations bridge the seemingly insurmountable chasms of complex problems to create change across scales. Such people could use support in their efforts, and groups could use guidance in identifying the people with the skill sets most appropriate for the process of scaling up innovations. 

Surmountable chasms (PDF)