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The scaling of research and innovation that creates social impact is a priority for IDRC and the development community broadly, but how best to achieve impact at scale is far from straightforward.

While we can learn a great deal from the private sector models that have grown increasingly popular amongst innovation and development agencies, these paradigms are designed to achieve growth and maximize corporate profit rather than improve social outcomes.

When the end goal is to enhance the public good, these models, drawn from industrial expansion, pharmaceutical regulation, or the high-tech sector, are not sufficient for the diverse and complex contexts in which development organizations operate. We must adapt and build on these models by drawing on the hands-on experience of designing and implementing innovative solutions across the Global South.

Seeking a more nuanced and systematic approach, IDRC conducted a review of more than 100 of the research projects it has funded. The result is a new approach for achieving impact at scale we call scaling science. Scaling science emphasizes four principles to guide development agencies in their decision-making: moral justification, coordination, optimal scale, and dynamic evaluation.

Together, these principles suggest a concept of scaling grounded in the vast and eclectic experience of the Global South. From this perspective, scaling impact is a coordinated effort to achieve a collection of impacts at optimal scale that is only undertaken if it is both morally justified and warranted by the dynamic evaluation of evidence.

Scaling Impact: Innovation for the Public Good

Scaling Impact introduces a new and practical approach to scaling the positive impacts of research and innova­tion. 

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Moral justification

The desire to achieve broad social impact creates a bias toward taking programs, policies, or products to large scale, but scaling social impact is not necessarily synonymous with growth. Viewed from this perspective, questions such as how to scale appropriately and responsibly, under what circumstances to scale, and most importantly  whether to scale, become central. The decision to scale a development effort must be based not only on the values of the organizations leading it, but also on those of the people affected by the innovation. After all, it is their lives that are materially impacted by the outcomes.

To morally justify decisions about scale, organizations need to consider the impact risk borne by those affected — that is, the likelihood of desired positive outcomes as well as of unintended negative outcomes.

The response to the West African Ebola outbreak, one of the projects reviewed by IDRC, stands as an example. During the crisis, no fully tested vaccine was available. Given the urgency of the situation and the dramatic impact risk faced by those on the ground, a standard clinical trial was not realistic. Instead, a promising vaccine was used in conjunction with an innovative vaccination strategy. This approach was less certain, but the level of risk was acceptable under the urgent circumstances with thousands of lives on the line.


Innovators must develop relationships with those that make scale possible and those affected by innovations. This principle of coordination goes hand-in-hand with moral justification. While the participation of financial and government players is critical for the resources they provide and the power they possess to clear policy and regulatory hurdles, it is the people affected by innovation that are best positioned to judge whether the impacts achieved constitute success. Their participation increases the likelihood that an innovation will scale successfully and appropriately.

Coordination among these diverse stakeholders can be directed or undirected. With directed coordination, participants agree on a plan of action and a subset of them oversee implementation. Throughout the scaling effort, various actors play more or less prominent roles at different stages of the process.

Undirected coordination follows a more organic approach. Players establish networks of interaction out of which activity becomes self-organizing based on shared priorities, hands-on situational awareness and grassroots initiatives. At the 2016 American Evaluation Association (AEA) conference,  IDRC hosted a formative meeting on the topic of  scaling science design and evaluation.  Mallika Samaranayake, president of the Community of Evaluators South Asia (CoE SA), made the point that scaling does not always have to be top-down. The people themselves can become change agents if they buy into and support an innovation, generating lateral spread and uptake. Her organization has seen successful outcomes in several countries arising from undirected interactions among members of the evaluation systems that CoE SA helped to establish.

Optimal scale

“Bigger is better” is the standard mantra of the business world where industry seeks to achieve economies of scale to increase profit. In the development context, “better” doesn’t necessarily equate with bigger.

The concept of optimal scale offers a way to think critically about how to define impact at scale and how to measure it. Success is not purely quantitative. Qualitative indicators such as sustainability, satisfaction, and quality of life are also key metrics. As programs are scaled, we should be aware that impacts will not grow in a one-to-one relationship and we should be wary of unintended consequences such as degrading positive impacts, amplifying negative ones, or displacing more effective alternatives.

In Tanzania, vitamin A deficiency is a significant health concern, particularly in rural areas. Large commercial producers sell refined sunflower oil that is fortified with vitamin A, but rural areas rely on unrefined and unfortified sunflower oil produced by small and medium enterprises (SMEs). A project to address the vitamin deficiency in the rural populace highlights the importance of appropriate scale. Working with SMEs to provide fortified unrefined sunflower oil necessarily limits the potential scale of the project, especially given that most of the existing producers are too small to cost-effectively adopt the fortification approach. At the same time, by working with SMEs, the project supports local businesses while successfully reaching the people most in need of additional vitamin A. In this case, a targeted intermediary scale makes sense — it meets an immediate need and is matched to the existing context.

Dynamic evaluation

Impacts can increase, decrease, or become qualitatively different as interventions are scaled up. Dynamic evaluation enables programs to stay attuned to changing impact by continuously gathering, assessing, and integrating data as scale, circumstances, and outcomes change. Methods of measurement and analysis can be adapted as necessary throughout the scaling process.

The RAHAT initiative, a survivor-centric approach to providing social and legal support for survivors of sexual violence, developed because of the rape of a four-year-old girl in Mumbai, India. The effective program has since scaled both horizontally to other communities and vertically through institutional layers. However, because the success of RAHAT is highly context-specific and reliant on the expertise of the lead organization, they have employed a dual approach of a targeted external evaluation and continuous internal assessment. The external review looked at the risks of and strategies for scaling in order to ensure the ongoing quality of the intervention. The internal assessment process monitors the changing circumstances (legal, social, institutional, etc.) in both existing implementations and potential localities for expansion so that the program can be adapted as needed.

Panelists at the AEA conference were in agreement that dynamic evaluation should be undertaken with a preference toward action and rapid learning applied to practice so that organizations can be innovative and try new things in the field. However, they stressed that rigorous evaluation is essential when addressing questions of scale.

Putting the principles into action

In conducting the review that led to scaling science, IDRC found the projects that best handled scaling tended to apply the paradigm’s four principles to the process. Producing three planning elements can aid in putting the principles into action: a path to scale, which specifies the stages through which an innovation is expected to pass as it’s scaled; a response to scale, which lays out how impacts are expected to change at these different stages; and partners for scale, which identifies the players involved and their interactions throughout. Together, these elements constitute the starting place for a scaling theory of change.

Scaling science is not intended as a prescriptive guide for successfully scaling projects. Rather, it is proposed as a map to make the complex waters of scaling appropriately easier to navigate. The hope is that it will also generate further discussion and contributions among those involved in development research and innovation.




Country Profile

Tenemos una rica historia de apoyo a la investigación en Tanzania, una democracia políticamente estable. Aunque el país ha reducido la tasa de pobreza y ha logrado un buen crecimiento económico en la última década, Tanzania sigue siendo una de las naciones más pobres del mundo.

Los sucesivos gobiernos tanzanos han reconocido la importancia de mejorar la salud y la agricultura para reducir la pobreza. Nuestro apoyo a la investigación en estas áreas, así como al cambio climático, ha contribuido a avances significativos.

Fortalecimiento de los sistemas de salud

Un proyecto de investigación de una década de duración llevado a cabo con fondos del IDRC y Global Affairs Canada ha permitido a los investigadores identificar las principales causas de muerte y enfermedad por distrito. Con esta información, el Ministerio de Salud de Tanzania puede asignar los suministros médicos y servicios de salud en consecuencia. Como resultado, la mortalidad infantil en los dos distritos de prueba disminuyó en un 40% y la mortalidad de adultos en un 17% en cinco años. Desde entonces, Tanzania ha puesto en marcha el programa a nivel nacional.

Tanzania es uno de los países en el que se centra el programa multifinanciero Innovar para la Salud Materna e Infantil en África. Investigadores canadienses y tanzanos están uniendo fuerzas con los responsables de la formulación de políticas de salud locales para desarrollar intervenciones de salud prácticas basadas en la comunidad con el fin de llegar a las madres y los niños de las zonas rurales de Tanzania.

Forjar los líderes del cambio climático

El desarrollo de un liderazgo eficaz es un elemento crítico para abordar los desafíos del cambio climático. Durante más de una década, hemos proporcionado subvenciones que fomentan la capacidad de avanzar y aplicar el conocimiento científico a la adaptación al cambio climático. El Instituto de Evaluación de Recursos de Tanzania dirigió el programa de becas, proporcionando subvenciones a más de 120 profesionales e investigadores de 18 países africanos con becas de política, maestría, doctorado, posdoctorado y docencia. Estos profesionales contribuyen ahora a aumentar la capacidad del continente para hacer frente a la variabilidad y el cambio climáticos.   


Total IDRC Support

248 actividades por un valor de 79.4 millones de dólares canadienses desde 1972

Meteorólogo leyendo mediciones del cambio climático en Tanzania.

Con el apoyo del IDRC se está ayudando a:

  • Revitalizar la capacidad de los grupos de reflexión tanzanos para llevar a cabo investigaciones e influir en las políticas.
  • Financiar becas y fomentar los vínculos entre investigadores e instituciones de Tanzania.
  • Reducir la mortalidad materna e infantil.
  • Fomentar la participación de los jóvenes para la seguridad de la comunidad.
  • Promover el aceite enriquecido con vitamina A para combatir la desnutrición.

Country Profile

La India ha experimentado un crecimiento económico impresionante en las últimas dos décadas. Sin embargo, la brecha entre los ricos y los pobres se está ampliando. Nuestro apoyo a la investigación aborda este y muchos otros desafíos.

En la India, así como en otros países, los problemas económicos se complican con el cambio climático. Un proyecto explora los vínculos entre el cambio climático y la migración desde las zonas del delta. Su objetivo es informar la política gubernamental en este ámbito crucial.

La reducción de la violencia también ha sido una prioridad importante. Es el centro de una nueva iniciativa multifinanciera, Ciudades Seguras e Inclusivas, que aborda la seguridad de los residentes desplazados involuntariamente en la ciudad de Cochin. 

Seguridad de las mujeres

La investigación apoyada por el IDRC en la India también se ha centrado en los derechos de las mujeres, la seguridad y el acceso a la justicia. En el estado de Punjab, por ejemplo, la investigación condujo a la mejora de los servicios para las mujeres víctimas de delitos y a un mejor trato de las mujeres detenidas. También ayudamos a fortalecer la capacidad de las mujeres para resistir los matrimonios forzados y a acceder a mejores condiciones económicas y sociales a través de un mejor sistema de guarderías gestionado por el Estado.

Oportunidades económicas para los trabajadores indios

La India es uno de los países en los que se centra la iniciativa multifinanciera Crecimiento y Oportunidades Económicas para la Mujer. Este programa quinquenal tiene como objetivo generar nuevas evidencias para el empoderamiento y el crecimiento económico de las mujeres. En la India, la investigación evaluará la eficacia de la mayor iniciativa gubernamental del mundo (el Programa Mahila Samakhya) para empoderar a las mujeres y mejorar su posición económica.

Otras investigaciones del IDRC orientadas al empleo incluyen una iniciativa para ayudar a las mujeres empresarias a hacer una mayor contribución a la economía india. Nuestros fondos para investigación apoyan la mejora de las normas laborales para proteger a los trabajadores de más bajo nivel en la economía india y asegurar su cumplimiento.

Mejorar la seguridad alimentaria

El Fondo Canadiense de Investigación sobre Seguridad Alimentaria Internacional, una iniciativa conjunta del IDRC y Global Affairs Canada, está abordando el daño económico y las pérdidas nutricionales asociadas con las altas tasas de deterioro de los alimentos. La iniciativa trabaja con las comunidades y los agricultores para mejorar el procesamiento de alimentos y aumentar el consumo de mijo. Su objetivo es reducir la desnutrición en las zonas rurales.

Mejorar la seguridad alimentaria ha sido desde hace mucho tiempo un objetivo de nuestro apoyo en la India. A finales de la década de 1990, financiamos telecentros rurales, es decir, centros comunitarios que ofrecen acceso a Internet, computadoras y otras tecnologías. Cientos de miles de aldeanos comenzaron a utilizar los telecentros para acceder a los mercados de pescado y agrícolas y encontrar otras oportunidades de obtener ingresos.

Total IDRC Support

638 actividades por un valor de 152.2 millones de dólares canadienses desde 1974

Chica limpiando paneles solares en la India.
DFID / A.Trayler-Smith

Con el apoyo del IDRC se está ayudando a:

  • Mejorar la calidad de la investigación en 43 instituciones de políticas públicas de la India.
  • Crear puestos de trabajo para los trabajadores marginados mediante el fomento del espíritu empresarial.
  • Adaptarse a los impactos del cambio climático en la subcuenca de Arkavathy, en el sur de la India, y en la cuenca de Darjeeling, en el noreste del país.
  • Mejorar la salud y los medios de subsistencia mediante el aumento de la producción y las tecnologías de mijo.
  • Determinar si los teléfonos móviles, los pequeños préstamos y la capacitación empresarial pueden fortalecer las microempresas que son propiedad de mujeres.
Top image: IDRC / Nichole Sobecki