Humanitarian Innovation: Untangling the many paths to scale

Written by Lesley Bourns, Dan McClure, Alice Obrecht

4th February 2019

A practical toolkit

Authored by Lesley Bourns, Dan McClure and Alice Obrecht on behalf of the Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation (GAHI)

In February 2019, the GAHI launched a paper entitled, Humanitarian Innovation: Untangling the many paths to scale.  The paper responds to a persistent humanitarian challenge: why do good ideas, demonstrated through pilots, fail to reach a scale at which they can maximize value for crisis-affected people? 

The Untangling the Paths to Scale paper offers a new scale framework designed with humanitarian innovation in mind, shaped by four key factors: solution value, difficulty, contextual variation, and operational sustainability.  Each combination of factors may have its own methodology and scaling journey, offering innovators a broader, more realistic range of options for determining how to take innovations to scale.  Recognizing the diversity of pathways to scale allows for a more realistic consideration of resources, skills, and steps involved in scaling.

This paper does not suggest that there is a “best” version of scale. The GAHI contends that the right level and form of scale varies depending on the specific case and pathway to scale: some factors should be optimized, while others may be sacrificed.

Below, authors Lesley Bourns and Dan McClure shared their perspectives on why this new framework is timely, relevant and practical.

What inspired you to write this paper?

Scaling humanitarian innovation is a difficult job that most innovators (and their sponsors) struggle to perform.  It requires the development of complex systems of support and solving difficult problems associated with business models and adapting to local contexts.  Simply continuing to compile lists of challenges is not going to substantially change this situation.  

The goal for us as authors and on behalf of GAHI was to create a useful resource to address two of the biggest challenges facing innovators in the humanitarian sector. The first is the lack of a simple framework to identify the unique barriers and tradeoffs that must be addressed during a particular scale journey. For example, there are now dozens of scaling assessment questionnaires that cover different aspects of the scaling journey — which should be used, when, and why?  Without a common framework within which to compare them to each other, it is impossible to determine how the different evaluations overlap or where their collective gaps are.

We identified four important factors that make up the new framework — Value, Difficulty, Sustainability and Variety — to guide project teams in interrogating their own innovations.  Our hope is that this tool will help innovators, decision-makers, and investors to map and organize the choices and challenges that may be faced on the pathway to scale a given innovation, discussing issues such as: how will this be sustained?  How does it translate from one setting to the next? How difficult are the changes involved in bringing this innovation to a wide audience? Who will own and pay for this innovation as it spreads?

What can be done with this framework?

As a sector, humanitarian actors are ready to graduate from reliance on commercial approaches and to embrace the fact that our complex and protracted challenges require a different ecosystem to support scale. The humanitarian sector needs its own unique model for scaling — one that recognizes our systems, challenges, power dynamics and contexts, but does not accept them to be insurmountable barriers.

Starting with the first factor in the framework, a project team looks at how to build and enhance the Value and impact of the innovation itself — a factor that does not necessarily remain fixed through an innovation lifecycle. Moving on, understanding the Difficulty of the given innovation identifies barriers and degree of change required to achieve success at the level of systems, stakeholders and markets. Sustainability, perhaps the most talked about factor, explores underlying questions associated with creating viable business models - most of which will sit outside of commercial markets -- and enduring ownership. And lastly, Variety, or contextual variation, asks whether and how the innovation can move from one setting to another without losing its value.

Value, Difficulty, Sustainability and Variety need not be examined sequentially in order to evaluate an innovation.  The focus on a given factor may go up and down like a dial; you can dial up your focus sustainability if you realize that the success of this innovation needs greater attention to ownership and financial viability, and your pathway to scale will thus be influenced by that emphasis. Similarly, if you realize that as an innovation is spread to more varied locations its value and level of difficulty change from the pilot, that may trigger different choices and trade-offs in that phase of scaling.

The paper recognizes that only a small number of relatively simple paths to scale have been widely recognized and supported for humanitarian innovations to-date, and these are mostly based on commercial models for scaling in vibrant markets. More complex paths, common to humanitarian settings, are often simply ignored. This new framework explicitly sets out to offer a means of pursuing these non-commercial journeys to scale as well, though it can also be applied to commercial or hybrid models of sustainability.  

What was the approach to researching and creating this toolkit?

We had the unique opportunity to research and write with a three-person team, offering perspectives from policy, research, systems engineering and humanitarian practice to tease out these four factors and to understand the system-wide barriers to scaling.  The paper draws both on the work of innovators and peers in the sector, as well as on our own rich experiences and analysis, allowing us to take the temperature and identify relevant areas for innovators and decision-makers to consider when taking an innovation to scale.

Why was it important to write this paper now?

Scale became a topic of increasing importance in the humanitarian sector about four years ago, with a focus on lean scaling practices borrowed from the commercial Silicon Valley approach. It has not been until recently that as a sector, we can acknowledge that while there is much to be learned from commercial scaling, it is not always suited to the complex problems and systems around humanitarian innovation. While the pilot approach generates impressive small-scale innovations, we have yet to see many of them actually scale.

We need more and better tools for navigating the journey to scale. There has been a long-standing practice of borrowing lean innovation practices from Silicon Valley. These commercial techniques for early stage innovation have been widely adopted for pilot programs within the sector.  We are now in danger of being stuck on a plateau, where more and more pilots are produced, but few go to scale.

Humanitarian innovators can’t simply cull a list of potential innovations and focus investments on big financial rewards – most of the solutions are not driven by the promise of large-scale financial gain. In many cases there are no effective end-user markets for humanitarian innovations. Further, if an innovation fails, the problem still remains.  The sector can’t just move on; we have to attack it from another angle.

The focus on scale is also driven by the reality that the demand for humanitarian assistance continues to grow. Crises are protracted and complex, and our current solutions are just not “big enough,” they cannot reach enough people to match the scale of the needs.

This paper also builds on a growing base of research and policy that has come before, including work by Management Sciences International; Results for Development; Elhra and the Humanitarian Innovation Fund, and others, and the lessons offered by cases from dozens of practitioners who manage scaling programs on a daily basis.

Who is this relevant to and what comes next?

What is truly inspiring is that the humanitarian sector is increasingly well positioned to create its own unique models for scaling — ones that recognizes how much is involved with sector systems, power dynamics, and contexts. We hope this framework will be a contribution to that process.

This is an evolving framework that we will start testing with humanitarian practitioners beginning in Geneva on 6 February at an interactive workshop during Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week (HPNW). This is just the first step in testing and refining this tool, which we plan to make an open-source resource for innovators and their partners.

In addition to a session at the HPNW, we will be launching a mini-series of specialized articles and engaging with our members and partners on how this can support their scaling and decision-making processes. Look out for more on an upcoming webinar.

For more information on our Practical Tools for Scaling Innovations session at HPNW on 6 February 2019 e-mail Olivia Quinn at

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