President Clinton once said, “nearly every problem has been solved by someone, somewhere. The challenge of the 21st century is to find out what works and scale it up.”

The question of scaling is a great issue for any progressive government – how to find and foster small pockets of brilliance. It’s particularly an issue in the fields of social policy, education, and health. There are promising pilots, social enterprises, and community projects in each of these sectors that inspire everyone who visits them. But it’s usually much harder to sustain their success at a larger scale.

Growth and scale in the social field are very different from growth and scale in for-profit commercial markets. Incentives to grow in social settings are weaker and it is harder to make the process work. This report compares social settings to commercial markets and identifies three barriers to scaling in social settings. Unlike commercial markets, there is no automatic sorting mechanism for the most promising innovations. It’s hard to know what really works and what does not in social settings without an “invisible hand” to help great innovations rise to the top.

Current funding models for social innovations are inadequate. Government funding responds slowly to new innovations; it is often stove-piped and aimed at projects with very specific characteristics, even though the most effective social innovations may well tackle issues across the neat boundaries of funding programs. And the government is also a passive and risk averse funder.

This report sets out a model for the public sector to improve scaling. If adopted, innovation systems in social settings, such as health and education, would become more efficient at testing, assessing, improving, and spreading the best ideas.

Social innovation

Posted on: 1 July 2010 Authors: Geoff Mulgan, Jitinder Kohli,

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