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Scaling – from “reaching many” to sustainable systems change at scale: A critical shift in mindset


  • Woltering, L.
  • Fehlenberg, K.
  • Gerard, B.
  • Ubels, J.
  • Cooley, L.


Countless development projects have piloted solutions that could make a difference if only applied at scale. The reality is that these pilot projects hardly ever reach the intended scale to contribute significantly to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In this paper, we argue that two major problems undermine efforts to achieve scale in development projects. First, pilot projects are usually set up and managed in very controlled environments that make it very difficult to transition to the real world at scale. Second, poor conceptual and methodological clarity on what scaling is and how it can be pursued often results in a narrow focus on reaching numbers. Counting household adoption at the end of a grant project is a poor metric of whether these people can and will sustain adoption after the project closes, let alone if adoption will reach others and actually contributes to improved livelihoods. We advocate for a broader view on scaling that more accurately reflects the transformational change agenda of the SDGs: from reaching many to a process aiming to achieve sustainable systems change at scale. Sustainable systems change alters a sufficient number of key drivers (incentives, rules, etc.) such that the system that once perpetuated a “problem” now instead perpetuates a “solution.” This has implications on the way projects are designed and implemented. Rather than focusing on changing conditions within the project context, projects should serve as vehicles for societal change. This means that projects make most sense if designed as part of a multisector, long-term programmatic approach. Treating scaling as a transformation process helps deal with the necessary coevolution of organizational and institutional arrangements, along with the innovations in a technology or practice. To help address scaling, we present a number of frameworks that guide users to assess the scalability of innovations, design for scale from the onset of projects, and systematically think through key elements, ingredients, or success factors. We conclude that scaling requires different skills, approaches, and ways of collaborating than those required for successful implementation of pilot projects. It calls for development actors to have a mindset that allows them to creatively navigate multiple overlapping systems; likewise, they must develop a clear vision about which elements in the system the actors can and cannot address, and about where they need to collaborate strategically to exert influence. Although it is tempting to hope for the silver bullet solution that changes the world, we argue for an approach that takes scaling serious in its own right and recognizes the complexities involved in facilitating a transition to a new “normal.”

Suggested Citation

  • Woltering, L. & Fehlenberg, K. & Gerard, B. & Ubels, J. & Cooley, L., 2019. "Scaling – from “reaching many” to sustainable systems change at scale: A critical shift in mindset," Agricultural Systems, Elsevier, vol. 176(C).
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:agisys:v:176:y:2019:i:c:s0308521x18314392
    DOI: 10.1016/j.agsy.2019.102652

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Kai Mausch & Dave Harris & Luke Dilley & Mary Crossland & Tim Pagella & Jules Yim & Emma Jones, 2021. "Not All About Farming: Understanding Aspirations Can Challenge Assumptions About Rural Development," The European Journal of Development Research, Palgrave Macmillan;European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes (EADI), vol. 33(4), pages 861-884, August.
    2. Low, Jan W. & Thiele, Graham, 2020. "Understanding innovation: The development and scaling of orange-fleshed sweetpotato in major African food systems," Agricultural Systems, Elsevier, vol. 179(C).

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