The transition from ‘selling a solution’ to achieving real systemic change

The concept of “scaling” or “scaling up” is increasingly popular in international development efforts, as it has the connotation of providing the answer in bringing technical solutions to a large number of people. However, the popularity of the term is not necessarily matched with in-depth research or approaches. In general, there is a tendency to associate scaling with strategies for (inclusive) business growth; these strategies usually involve market-driven approaches to reach impact, with a lead firm or NGO promoting a specific solution in search of a market (share). This is what we call ‘horizontal scaling’ as such approaches are mainly focused on simply reaching large numbers of people.

In the past months, SNV as part of PPPLab has specifically looked at the role that PPPs can play in scaling processes by interviewing thought leaders as well as studying a large number of PPP cases. PPPLab’s study found that in many cases achieving significant degrees of scale also requires dealing with other system levels: not just spreading the solution or practice but also changing the ways that organisations and institutions function to enable that solution or practice. This is also labelled as ‘vertical scaling’; changing the rules of the game in a specific sector.


The relation of number of people reached and system levels (PPPLab 2016) The relation of number of people reached and system levels (PPPLab 2016)

A classic example is sanitation; while an NGO can try to raise awareness and build sanitation facilities for local communities, it would greatly help if national policies also aim for large-scale sanitation adoption (for example through national awareness campaigns) or if financial institutions make the facilities affordable by offering sanitation loans.

It doesn’t need explanation that many problems addressed in development, such as water and food insecurity, are ‘wicked problems’, involving many interests and stakeholders. Naturally, scaling innovative solutions in such playing-fields is not a simple matter of ‘selling a solution’; large-scale adoption of improved practices will only take place when we also address ‘higher’ system levels, as we also need to embed those practices in policies, institutions and rules of the game. In other words, we need rich strategies that both involve horizontal as well as vertical dimensions of scaling.

Scaling access to sanitation also requires work on finance and policy, among others (Photo by: Sanergy) Scaling access to sanitation also requires work on finance and policy, among others (Photo by: Sanergy)

From this perspective, it seems only natural that partnerships are needed for such scaling efforts. Bringing together different actors and drivers can help to address the various dimensions of scaling; with businesses, certain types of NGOs and public campaigns usually driving the business approach/horizontal dimensions of scale; while public actors, the more activist/advocacy NGOs, and some business leaders driving the vertical dimensions. Together, these different actors are better equipped to reach ‘higher levels’, which enables them to change policies and institutionalize new innovative practices. Together, they are better equipped in addressing barriers to reach large and sustainable impact. Together, actors in partnerships can make a real change.

SNV Netherlands Development Organisation, as part of PPPLab, has just released its paper on Scaling & System Change. Click here to read it. 


This blog is part of the November 2016 series on Scaling and replicating inclusive business models, in partnership with DFID and SEED. Explore with us the key ingredients of a pathway to scale, debates and new ideas on replication, and look at what small companies, large companies and ecosystem actors can do.

Floortje Jacobs
Floortje Jacobs
As Public-Private Partnership Advisor for SNV my interest goes out to the relevance, effectiveness and additional value of PPPs in supporting development objectives while serving business interests; is it possible to combine public and private...


  1. Profile photo of Karen Smith Karen Smith says:

    Hi Floortje – I read your blog with interest since I agree that the term “scaling up” is widely used but not so commonly unpacked in terms of what it might mean in practice. Scaling up of a business model is not necessarily the same as scaling reach to more poor beneficiaries, and sometimes increasing the quality of a change might be more important than reaching more people.
    I did have a quick look through your report too which had many interesting models and ideas. I was surprised, however, to note that there was no reference to the widely known M4P approach, which has been used by donor programmes for many years. The approach has a very well documented and practical guide (http://www.enterprise-development.org/wp-content/uploads/m4pguide2015.pdf) for the to understanding how to design and implement projects that can achieve systemic change for the benefit of the poor in a market. I have yet to see any other model that so clearly lays out how to analyse and engage in systemic change (i.e. both sustainable and at scale) and I just wondered whether there was a reason for it receiving no mention?

    • Profile photo of Floortje Jacobs Floortje Jacobs says:

      Dear Karen,

      Thanks for your useful comments. About the M4P approach – we wanted to start with a ‘concise’ conceptual paper on scaling and therefore had to make choices regarding the main concepts/theory/literature presented, and decided to use the system thinking approach of Simons as we thought that fitted well in our line of thinking at that point. But indeed, you are right; the M4P approach is very relevant in this context. We will definitely take this up for a next version. Thanks!

  2. Profile photo of Caroline Ashley, Editor Caroline Ashley, Editor says:

    Floortje, thanks for such a clear explanation of the difference between horizontal scaling (expanding reach) and vertical scaling (influencing the system for the model to scale). It will be important to see your examples and evidence on how partnerships contribute to the latter. On your last point, you suggest different partners can influence different issues – so does this need actual formal partnership to do that, or more ‘alignment’ and complementarity? ie do you define PPPs quite narrowly as joint investments, or more broadly as partnerships to work in complementary ways on different parts of a solution? Please do share your report when it is published with another blog on the Hub. Thanks!

    • Profile photo of Floortje Jacobs Floortje says:

      Thanks Caroline for your questions! We have based our research on seven PPP case studies, as well as on interviews with at least 10 ‘thought leaders’ in scaling in the Netherlands. Summaries of the case studies and a list of interviewees will be included as an appendix to our publication. I will post a link here as soon as the publication will be available. Regarding your second question, we define PPPs more broadly – as you say, as partnerships that work in complementary ways on different aspects of a solution. I hope that clarifies for now and we will provide an update as soon as the publication is out.

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