In the uphill struggle to promote human rights, those who are leading the way face similar obstacles, no matter where they come from and which path they are on. One of the most curious obstacles: There are so many interesting innovations out there that clearly do better than the mainstream practices. And still they never make it. They remain small, or are even closed down after a while.
These failing innovations may come in the form of products/services that cost less, or are easier to use. They may be more accessible, or make institutions more inclusive and just. They may respond better to the needs of their beneficiaries, be more adaptive, or serve those people who have, so far, been neglected. They may enable more informed decision-making, or decision-making by the beneficiaries in the first place.
Even though the benefits of these new solutions are self-evident and measurable, they may never be picked up by mainstream decision-makers. And the innovators themselves may never be able to grow them substantially. Using the language of innovation and entrepreneurship: They may never be “scaled up”. The term “to scale” or “to scale up” may be a bit technical, but it clearly gets the point home: Scalae in Latin means “ladder” or “stairs”. And innovations that are not scaled, never make it up the ladder.
Why is that? Here are eight reasons why even the most spectacular innovations may never successfully climb up the ladder and why they may fail to achieve what they all want: to change the world for the better.
Reason 1: Fear. Every real innovation means change, and it means disruptive change: New models come, and old ones have to go. People could loose their jobs, as could all kinds of vested interests. But long before that all even happens, people will be afraid and they will protect what they currently have and fight the new model.
Reason 2: Meaning. There is another threat for the incumbents: The loss of meaning and identity. Many have done their work with dignity and pride, but now all this could soon become outdated, or even be considered wrong or harmful – just think of everyone currently working in institutions for persons with disabilities or special schools. The incumbents – who always outnumber the innovators in the early stages – will tend to fight back because they are afraid of losing meaning to and of their work.
Reason 3: Ignorance. Decision-makers and opinion leaders (no matter whether from politics, public administration or business), and, even more, everyone else in the “ranks”, are often ignorant about human rights issues. Peter Drucker, an Austrian economist, warned everyone about too much innovation in organizations, because “incompetence, after all, is the only thing in an unabating and never-failing supply”. As an example, an inspired innovator meets someone absolutely ignorant about the need for employment of people who are disadvantaged in the job market. This discussion has the potential to go completely awry. The ignorant will never have heard of this need (“Aren´t they taken care by the social security system?”). The ignorant will never have heard of existing practices and will not believe that they can work (“Do you really want a person with a disability on a construction site?”). And the ignorant could even consider it bad to raise the issue at all (“Isn´t the rate of unemployment high enough already?”).
Reason 4: No recipe book. There is no commonly accepted theory in economics or sociology about how scaling-up actually works. There is no recipe-book and there is no convenient app. Theorists do not even agree on the basics, which are: Is it the entrepreneurial skill that matters most and that has to be nurtured? Or is it the framework (of laws, taxes and institutions) that you have to get right and which will automatically lead to the correct development?
Reason 5: Glass ceiling. Small “biotopes” can be created and funded comparatively easily around a promising innovation. A prototype can be funded by the famous “FFF” (Family, Friends and Fools). A community project always has a chance of getting small grants from municipalities or fundraising. You may even get foundations or companies to come in at this stage, if you are a persuasive person. But most of them have to stand down when it comes to financing expansion. Innovations reach a glass ceiling after the first or second step on the ladder. And the number as well as the type of funders at this second step is very different, since those are business or impact investors, or public grant makers on a national and international level.
Reason 6: Direct and indirect impact. Closely related to that: Those early-stage supporters are often reluctant to involve new supporters, even though they themselves are now blocking the way up the ladder. What may sound counterintuitive happens every day. It is often difficult for a founder of a project to accept that he (or she) is not the right person to manage a full-blown organization. The founder may also be anxious that anyone offering support is a technocrat (does not really care about the people), is driven by money, or only wants a place in the limelight. But it is not only the founder: A grant-giving organization from the early stages is often also sceptical of those who want to come in later. It has funded “for free” and taken all the risk, and now people want to step in who, a) look only at market revenues; or b) want to bring in government funding. Donors from civil society often distrust government, not only because it is in their genes but also because public support is linked to politicians who, from their point of view, may get totally undeserved laurels. The problem: either a), or b) is normally needed to ensure sustainability and growth.
Reason 7: Multi-Stakeholder: Yes, yes, we love multi-stakeholder approaches. And yes, we know that everyone working on the same issue should also be included in the development of our innovation. In daily life, multi-stakeholder dialogues do not work most of the time. It is difficult to get those people “up in the food-chain”, like leading persons from the public administration, or social security providers, even the existing service providers, to join meetings. And, after hopefully having achieved that, you also need the beneficiaries at the table. But this means, in the case of the homeless, the drug-dependent, the poor people from remote areas, that the table should be in their midst, and you do not need 60 minutes of concentrated, Powerpoint- and aircon-supported meeting, but hours of careful listening. It is normally not done by the innovators because there is so much “real work” to be done every day.
Reason 8: No techniques. There are no clearly defined techniques of how to climb the ladder, or even worse: the ladder has no prefabricated steps. In the commercial world, franchising is a clearly defined technique used to scale. But social franchising is no more than a crude concept, it comes in various forms. In the commercial world, selling stakes in companies and getting bank loans are commonly known techniques. But both are normally not accessible for social ventures. Even worse, social innovations – almost by definition – create something outside existing regulations. They may create, for example, new jobs, but they may have to fight to ensure that these jobs become an officially recognized profession. They offer innovative train-the-trainer programs and training-on-the-job, but they do not fit into the existing programs of public funders.
Innovations that have been successfully scaled up, need all our respect, and also attention. Creating environments that are more friendly to scaling up, and insights about what actually works, could be the next big thing for social innovations.