McKinsey & Company

McKinsey on Society


Voices Social innovation

Social Innovation: A matter of scale

feature-davis-scale Steve DavisPresident & CEO

Steve Davis is President and CEO of PATH, an international nonprofit health organization that develops and delivers high-impact, low-cost health solutions.

The TakeawaySocial innovation is more than just a fashionable rebranding of traditional philanthropic activities. It refers to new approaches and tools for solving the world’s most difficult problems. While many innovative solutions have been deployed, the most important challenge now is identifying the very best of these practices and programs and replicating them to achieve global scale.

Is “innovation” the new black? It has certainly displaced old taglines from the ’80s and ’90s that were all about “solutions” and “catalysts.” Over the past decade we’ve hailed innovation, innovators, and innovative companies as the cure for all of our woes. And if that trend weren’t enough, along comes “social” innovation, a label that has been appended to hundreds of conferences, articles, and job titles over the past few years.

But what do we mean by social innovation—and does it really matter? Is it simply the rebranding of things we’ve been doing forever? And most important, will it last longer than last year’s hemlines? Will it matter to my grandchildren someday?

In its essence, social innovation simply refers to new approaches and tools for solving societal challenges. It is not simply the repackaging of old ideas. We’ve learned a lot over the past decade about what works and what doesn’t in global health, development, education, sustainability, and many other challenging areas. We’ve learned how to design and deploy interventions. We can now have a strong perspective on which interventions have the potential to truly alter the course of a deadly infectious disease or move millions of young people out of debilitating poverty, based on the evidence of actual outcomes. We believe that the very best social innovations can transform our communities with new approaches to the complex challenges of the 21st century.

However, achieving that kind of impact requires yet another step. Unless a program can be replicated and sustained on a large scale, it will not be transformational. Identifying and scaling our best solutions has become the sector’s most important challenge. To meet that challenge, we can no longer evaluate programs simply based on how well they’ve performed in a given locality. Instead, we need to factor in their potential to achieve scale. We need to channel resources to the solutions that can produce the most good for the most people. As Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, has pointed out, “Solutions to many of the world’s most difficult social problems don’t need to be invented, they need only to be found, funded, and scaled.”

It is incumbent on all of us to understand and vigorously address the barriers that prevent great ideas from turning into transformational changes. Unlike in the private sector, where successful product innovations have a clear process for gaining market share, the best social innovations are not necessarily widely adopted. The “iPods”of poverty alleviation and literacy have likely been invented and put to use by small organizations in some corner of the globe, but there is no market for identifying these breakthrough ideas and ensuring widespread adoption.

Additionally, the private-sector model of mergers and acquisitions, which leads to consolidation and ever increasing efficiency, rarely occurs in the social sector, where organizations with similar missions often find themselves pitted against one another in the competition for funds. Philanthropic funding mechanisms, with their short funding cycles, restricted project grants, and focus on new, rather than proven programs, have not always led to scaling the best social innovations. Besides organizational and financial barriers, there is often a tension between bringing social innovations to scale and ensuring that programs address the needs of local constituents.

Social innovators recognize these barriers and are working to overcome them. Our research points to four major opportunities that support our belief in the power of social innovation and provide insight into the path forward to scaling the most promising solutions:

1. Technology innovation: There has been rapid development of products that can improve the quality of life and health of the huge percentage of the world living in poverty. Water filtration systems and mosquito nets, for example, have improved health outcomes in Africa and other parts of the developing world. Compared with other social innovations that involve place-based social mobilization models, technology platforms designed for bottom-of-the-pyramid markets often scale remarkably well.

2. Geopolitical shifts: Rapid economic development in some regions and countries, including India, China, and Brazil, is bringing new resources and perspectives to social innovation at massive scale. China, for example, has moved the largest number of people out of poverty in the shortest period of time, in history. Tapping into the development lessons, increased resources, and powerful capabilities these countries are generating provides new and different fuel to the social innovation engine as well as useful insight into what could be effective elsewhere.

3. Cross-sector collaboration: We have moved beyond community solutions provided by churches, extended families, and government, to transformative innovations created through public, private, and nonprofit collaborations, including new vaccines and diagnostics, new funding mechanisms such as social impact bonds, and new educational initiatives. Many collaborative approaches take advantage of economies of scale and market mechanisms to use resources more efficiently to produce positive outcomes at greater scale.

4. Knowledge sharing: In addition to creating partnerships, increased knowledge sharing between organizations and across sectors is helping to identify the most promising solutions. For the past several decades, the social sector has been developing the capacity to evaluate and measure the impact of programs. This work provides the building blocks for the next phase of progress, in which social innovators will be able to harvest the knowledge about what works that is currently distributed across the globe in organizations large and small.

While these trends point to a tremendous flourishing of social innovation, the work of the next generation of social innovators will be to identify the ideas that produce results and ensure that limited resources are used to spread the best solutions. Imagine the impact that could be achieved if all the effort invested in addressing social problems was channeled to the widespread expansion of the most powerful programs. Bringing the best interventions to the people who need them most at a scale proportional to the size of the global problems we face is the major challenge facing the social sector, and perhaps the world.

E-mail alerts

Get our latest knowledge emailed to you

Follow us