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The Tension Between Speed and Scale in Successful Social Innovations

By Guest Writer on February 19, 2016


At the invitation of FHI360 and Cisco, the Red Cross recently presented early insights from our experience introducing fire-detecting sensors across two informal settlements in Kenya and South Africa. To help illustrate the potential of the Internet of Things in development, we shared breakthroughs in five areas: process innovation, product viability, community value, new complexities related to data and policy, and business opportunity.

The nine-month technology demonstration was designed around the installation of 2,000 sensors at the household level in Mukuru, Nairobi and Khayelitsha, Cape Town. But because technology rarely works in isolation, we took care to incorporate several other improvements to more comprehensively address this complex issue.

We partnered with communities to provide education, emergency drills, current maps, firefighting equipment, and political, social and economic research – support that helps fill their preparedness, response and recovery gaps, and strengthens their resilience to crisis. A fire sensor alone could not achieve this.

Those who heard about our model expressed surprise with how many people and organizations it takes to lead this type of comprehensive, participatory and principled social innovation process. More than 20 partners, including universities, government agencies, global corporations, philanthropic foundations, technology startups, designers, and multi-lateral and civil society organizations, dedicated teams to a shared vision.

Additionally, no fewer than 30 Red Cross staff members actively contributed to our solution. The coalition may seem grand given our bias for lean experimentation, but at times it still felt like too few, and in future stages, that number will most certainly grow.


Speed and the size of the innovation team

When technology is the driving tool, it is easy to forget that responsible innovation also requires ongoing community presence, legal and policy experts, monitoring and evaluation, contracts and agreements, social mobilization and behavior change plans, communications and fundraising, business strategy and financial oversight, design and delivery mechanisms, security and many other specialists with the expertise to match your learning objectives.

I once heard a technology executive express his envy for Kickstarters who were able to manage innovation, nimbly, with one or two people. But, he also admitted that most would fail because the idea’s growth was overly dependent on the entrepreneurs’ own health and skills, they often work outside of the ecosystem they want to affect, and they are not resourced to fully manage all of the logistics, opportunities and risks associated with bringing a solution to market.

At times, well-wishers advised us to enable speed by limiting the number of people involved. And wherever possible, the Red Cross partnered with organizations and individuals who could offer a package of skills, services and insights; these generalists were essential to bridging the learning across sites and operated as a core team of advisors and decision makers. Other tasks, however, required people with specialized training, mandates, relationships, availability and access. And in some situations, like research, it was important to enlist independent and neutral parties to support the goals.

At a recent gathering where members of this coalition exchanged their accomplishments, findings and recommendations, nearly everyone agreed the breadth of learning would not have been possible without everyone’s involvement. Our iterative approach required short trials or bursts of activity, and we leveraged a combination of community demand, our disaster response experience, and inherent impatience to maintain speed and momentum.

But like the executive referenced earlier, we weren’t foolish enough to expect one or two people, working part time, could carry such an important priority forward on our rapid timeline. Entrepreneurs often work upwards of 20 hours a day on their start-up ideas and most of them fail. And while the hours are still long with a bigger team, I credit our leadership for recognizing the value of equipping innovation for success and our partners for teaching us what is truly required for each stage of the journey.


More than big budgets and speed, these hidden responsibilities often make or break innovation:

  1. Choose humble partners who want to learn and adapt based on what you uncover together. Innovation is not helped by agendas. Fixed methods, protecting and marketing ideas, maintaining the status quo, being competitive and ignoring feedback will sabotage your progress and distract you in the process. Wanting your partners to succeed in reaching their business objectives is imperative to achieving shared value.
  2. Be intentional about when you bring in partners. Depending on the tasks at hand, some will need a simultaneous launch and others a staggered start to realize the full potential of your collaboration. In addition to strategic, be flexible as partners may drift in and out of the coalition as specific pieces of work are accomplished.
  3. Introduce the partners early, communicate in multiple directions and network your tribe. Clarity of roles and ongoing coordination of activities will not only lead to cross learning and clear decision making, but also prevent the burdening of the communities you are trying to serve with multiple requests and visits as well as duplication and inconsistent communication. Also, the spin-off collaborations that resulted from our coalition’s interactions are some of my favorite outcomes of the initiative.
  4. Keep observers on the sidelines informed. Even though you are attempting exciting things, not everyone will join your vision immediately. By sharing information and passive invitations along your journey with your more distant networks, you can articulate where new gaps, pain points and needs arise, and organizations and individuals can continuously evaluate where they might contribute or complement your evolving plans.


Scale and the success of the innovation

The benefits of innovation in coalition extend beyond speed and scope; scale is virtually impossible without partners. I haven’t met an innovator who disagrees with this perspective, however, I have met way too many who engage others only after their idea has been fully baked in a secret test kitchen. Even open-source technologies are not always open while in development, before they are proven.

Our experience was significantly enhanced because our lab was the coalition; we were willing to openly grapple with the questions, delegate responsibly, challenge each other, rally around problems, compromise for the benefit of the communities and pool resources. The longest lasting, most satisfying and impressive innovations I have seen were designed in this dynamic–among friends, on napkins, around a table, in relationship. Innovation in coalition is the opposite of presenting an idea and seeking support, buy-in or endorsement; it’s about building a shared vision and designing for scale from the start.

A lot of criticism is handed to innovators who work from HQ and push ideas “down” to the field. Organizations that build their own tools, experiment unilaterally and try to “sell” their late-stage ideas to others are often met with the same resistance. Sure, these teams may initially move at lightning speed and never have to debate logos on a masthead, but they will almost certainly run smack into a wall or ceiling at some point.

These adoption-based scaling strategies are flawed because one group’s idea, even those tested repeatedly in multiple locations, rarely reflects enough people’s priorities, values, traditions and attitudes to fully appeal or address the problem. Every failure story includes good ideas stymied by late-stage involvement of communities and other partners. This type of “post-production misfit” is, in part, why pilots don’t become programs and why we don’t see industry-wide progress.


With participatory design and implementation we achieved greater understanding and trust, and we are, now, on the way toward a more enduring, sustainable solution that can replicate, independent of us, across the globe. We found when an entire ecosystem of stakeholders is part of the preparation, creation, implementation and evaluation of an idea, everyone shares responsibility and success.

We are not the only ones who know this to be true; more donors today recognize the value of collective impact, and now, require of their grantees engagement of their employees, nontraditional partners and adjacent industries to truly dislodge complex and stubborn challenges. Some even go as far as to deny support for single-organization, single-issue pursuits.

Someone wise once said, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” As more humanitarian and development organizations consider installing in-house innovation programs and erecting individual labs, I worry that we won’t go as far. Our resources and expertise are constrained, and independent innovation will ultimately create more limits and divides. I would rather see leaders:

  • invest in a few talented partnership gurus to generally facilitate, amplify and network innovations;
  • task all employees and volunteers to support the continuous improvement process from their roles and spheres of influence;
  • organize dynamic, multi-disciplinary teams of specialists based on specific priorities; and
  • leverage committed partners to augment and equip the matrixed team and to extend the reach and impact of the innovation.

It’s cliché to say, but one humanitarian or development organization truly cannot meet the needs of a community. Nor can they effectively facilitate the full innovation cycle, act on the learning fast enough and achieve scale alone. Even if we had fewer objectives, our learning curve in the areas of technology and business would have certainly slowed down the process and quite possibly compromised the fire sensor demonstration as well as the community’s trust. The more voices we heard, the better the idea became; the more hands we shook, the easier the solution was to carry; and the more the coalition grew, the lower our costs dropped.

As Stephen O’Brien of UNOCHA is credited as saying at Davos last month, “we are wrong to think that nonprofits have a monopoly on passion.” Emerging economies offer significant growth opportunities for large and small​ businesses, and I would be remiss, in a post about partnership, not to conclude with an invitation for you to join our coalition and improve the open innovation experience.

By Abi Weaver, Director of Global Technology Project at the American Red Cross

Filed Under: Relief
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One Comment to “The Tension Between Speed and Scale in Successful Social Innovations”

  1. gonzalo perez says:

    I´work in FabLab Ciudad de Mexico and my studies is for social impact of ICT