January 22, 2021

The scalingXchange: introduction

The International Development Research Centre (IDRC) online scalingXchange 2020 brought together Southern innovators to exchange learning and experience on efforts to scale impact for the public good.

Scaling advisors reflected on each of IDRC’s guiding principles for scaling impact – justification, optimal scale, coordination, and dynamic evaluation – within the context of their own work, and discussed how IDRC and other funders can better support the principles in practice. 

The following offers a brief overview of some of the main messages emerging from the discussion:

  • Justification: The conversation around this principle highlighted the need to continually assess both the technical and moral justifications for scaling, and to provide space to do so within the parameters of projects. As new evidence is generated, the technical justification must be revisited and re-assessed. Similarly, as the identification of new stakeholders and new interests evolves in the scaling process, additional (and potentially conflicting) values are likely to emerge. Sound moral justification therefore also requires an ongoing understanding and balancing of these interests and values.
  • Optimal scale: The conversation around the optimal scale principle confirmed the importance of recognising that ‘bigger is not always better’, and noted that there is still a problematic tendency to focus on magnitude as the predominant measure of successful scaling. Advisors also noted that sufficient information is critical to understanding optimal scale, but that lack of resources to pursue it is a challenge. Additionally, advisors raised the need to consider ‘optimal speed’ of scaling processes – acknowledging that particularly in cases where we need to influence behaviours as a part of a scaling process, the speed at which we attempt to do so will likely affect the chances of success.
  • Coordination: The conversation around the coordination principle emphasised the need to consider power relations throughout the scaling process and in efforts to incorporate the views and interests of a diverse range of stakeholders. We need to think about how different stakeholders are influenced, and come up with tailored strategies to influence them. Scaling advisors also noted that timing is crucial in developing collaborative relationships, especially with an expanding set of stakeholders in a scaling process — and challenges arise when funding cycles are not flexible enough to accommodate this.
  • Dynamic evaluation: Each conversation leading up to the session on dynamic evaluation highlighted the importance of evaluation to inform and uphold the other three guiding principles. Scaling advisors raised the importance of a learning culture within organisations to enable dynamic evaluation. In environments where evaluation is understood as mainly an accountability orientated tool, there may be a reluctance to use approaches that will surface the information needed to identify and pursue optimal scale. There is also a need to think beyond individual projects when taking a dynamic evaluation stance, given that scaling processes typically span multiple projects – dynamic evaluation means we need to consider what has been done before, and ask questions that could inform potential future efforts to scale for optimal impact. To do this requires sufficient resources for evaluation as well as flexibility around what will be assessed.

The advisors recognised the challenge presented for research funders like IDRC, and based on their own experiences they recommended that funding approaches:

  • Be flexible.
  • Respond to long-term horizons.
  • Consider the political nature of efforts to scale public goods and services.
  • Leverage support of the multiple stakeholders involved in any scaling effort.
  • Prioritise learning and adaptation over accountability.

About the scalingXchange

Objectives

The scalingXchange sought to:

  • Share consolidated learning to date on scaling in the Global South.
  • Consult with participants on how to improve understanding of and support for scaling in research for development.
  • Build a community of practice among the participants.

Scaling advisors

Approximately 23 IDRC-supported researchers from the Global South and working on a wide range of issues joined the exchange, as well as a handful of global scaling experts and IDRC staff. All IDRC-supported participants were carefully selected for their track record as innovators in scaling research impact, and were recognised as a cohort of ‘scaling advisors’.

Find out who the scaling advisors are.

We should note that the working language of the scalingXchange was English. Although this did not prevent the participation of Spanish- and French-speaking scaling advisors, it did, as would be expected, limit the depth of some of the discussions. Efforts to encourage more discussions in multiple languages will be incorporated into the future activities of this emerging community.

A changing field

Scaling science is an emerging field (particularly in high-income countries) but it is not new. At least one global community of practice already exists: the Scaling Up Community of Practice, which convenes practitioners from across the world. However, while research on scaling is effectively taking place in the Global South, for example in the context of primary care, much of the conversation about scaling is happening among Northern actors and in the North. Representation from the Global South is still limited in the field.

In this video, Johannes Linn, co-founder of the international Scaling Up Community of Practice talks about the global development-scaling landscape.

IDRC sought to address the lack of Southern representation in the conversation about scaling, by convening a group of scaling advisors drawn from among its own portfolio of grantees in the Global South. The scaling advisors have begun to develop a collective understanding of scaling and how it may be promoted largely based on views and experiences from the Global South. 

In this video, Rob Mclean talks about why IDRC organised the scalingXchange.

The design

The scalingXchange was designed to maximise engagement among the participants and offer them the opportunity to reflect on the field from different perspectives.

It comprised four cycles, each corresponding to one of the four guiding principles for scaling impact identified by IDRC through a study of over 200 research projects across the Global South: justification, optimal scale, coordination, and dynamic evaluation. 

The scalingXchange involved the following components (see schedule):

  • A Slack workspace: to convene and communicate with all participants. 
  • Introductory videos: to provide an introduction to each principle.
  • Guiding question: to guide the discussions in groups and during the fishbowl sessions.
  • Live fishbowl sessions: to encourage a discussion across all groups and participants focusing on each principle at a time.
  • Group discussions: to help and encourage more nuanced discussions between participants.
  • A final session: to address any final questions and involve a wider IDRC audience. 

Go to:

Additional resources

Useful resources shared by scaling advisors during the scalingXchange: 

Please share your own below!

About the authors:

Enrique Mendizabal:  Founder, On Think Tanks

Louise Ball:  Freelance communications consultant currently based in Medellin, Colombia

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