Scaling-up, for societal impact

In a previous post I wrote about my ambition to help to (better) focus innovation projects on promoting people’s wellbeing. In two earlier posts I advocated focusing on promoting wellbeing, and organizing collaborative innovation. Below I will advocate scaling-up innovation projects’ results.

First, let’s clarify what I mean with ‘scaling-up’.

Innovation projects typically deliver a prototype of a new product or service. Preferably a prototype implemented and tested in a realistic setting, e.g., in collaboration with a launching customer and with a group of users. In the case of an e-health service, this could involve a hospital department, and a group of doctors, nurses and patients, and their family members. A trial with such a prototype can impact the lives of, e.g., 100 patients during a period of several months.

In order to have significant impact in society, however, the project’s results need to be scaled-up. This would involve scaling-up the technology, e.g., by using larger servers or more robust protocols, scaling-up the number of users, e.g., by involving other hospital departments or other hospitals, and scaling-up the business model, e.g., by getting parties committed to deploying the new service in a sustainable way. The last point the trickiest.

Many projects were successful in delivering an interesting prototype. But one year later, nothing remained of that. When the project’s budget is spent, the project collapses. That should worry us. Especially when the project was (partly) funded with tax-payers’ money. Noblesse oblige. Researchers, policy makers, developers and designers should put more effort and creativity in scaling-up.

Now, how can this scaling-up be done, practically?

I think there are three key success factors for scaling-up: involving all relevant partners; focusing on practical situations; and covering social, organizational and business issues.

All the parties that will be needed for successful implementation and deployment of the project’s results (e.g., an e-health service) need to be involved during the development. Otherwise there will be a ‘not invented here’ syndrome: organizations that were not involved in the project will be unwilling or unable to do anything with the project’s results.

Second, the project would need to be based on a practical understanding of the problem. Therefore, project team members need to spend a significant amount of their time in practical situations, with future customers, with potential users. Such investments do pay-off, in terms of a better understanding of the problem and of possible solutions.

Third, the project should not only cover technological issues, but also social issues, e.g., the innovation’s impact in people’s daily lives, organizational issues, e.g., the integration with current processes or systems, and economic issues, e.g., fair ways of dividing costs (e.g., development) and benefits (e.g., reducing costs) between the partners involved.

In the case of a mobile app that promotes healthy life styles, e.g., it would be useful to create a ‘societal business model’, which includes not only financial costs and benefits, but also societal costs and benefits, such as reducing health care costs, and improved wellbeing and participation in society. Clarification of these societal benefits can help to motivate a (local) government or health insurance provider to participate in the project.

Do you know any examples of involving relevant partners, of focusing on practical situations, or of addressing social, organizational or business issues? What can we learn from those examples?

Collaborative innovation

In a previous post I wrote about my ambition to help to (better) focus innovation projects on promoting people’s wellbeing. This begs the following questions: What is currently wrong with these projects? And what could be done differently? In my previous post I advocated focusing innovation projects on their ultimate goal to promote people’s wellbeing. Below I will advocate organizing collaborative innovation.

Let us assume that we organize innovation projects because we want to solve societal problems and promote people’s wellbeing—e.g., by enabling people to live (more) healthily, actively or safely. Then we need multiple perspectives to understand this problem and to develop solutions. We need a technology perspective, to understand the role of technology in causing the problem or in creating solutions. A social perspective, to understand social processes and people’s needs and aspirations. And a business perspective, to understand the role of industry in causing the problem or in creating solutions. Moreover, any solution will need a viable business model in order to be sustainable.

Furthermore, we will need to organize collaboration between a range of actors and stakeholders, e.g., suppliers, funding agencies, customers and users. In the case of developing a health care service, e.g., this may involve an e-health software developer, a health care insurance company, medical staff, and patients and their family members. This may sound like commonplace. But this is not always the case in practice. Too often, project teams operate from ivory towers. And even when actors and stakeholder are involved, they are often involved too late in the process, or in relatively passive roles—instead of right from the beginning and in active roles.

Moreover, we combine practice and theory. We need to solve the ‘innovation paradox’. In The Netherlands, e.g., we are good in developing knowledge, but weak in creating practical solutions for practical problems. Universities are traditionally looked at for the development of knowledge. Knowledge that others can use in practical situations. But this transfer does not happen automatically. Too often we have academic knowledge on one side and unsolved societal problems on the other. Fortunately, however, this is starting to change. Peter Paul Verbeek, e.g., recently proposed that ‘academic freedom implies societal engagement’.

In short, we need collaborative innovation. We need a room full of people, with different backgrounds, from different organizations. And they need to engage in co-creation: to identify, study and understand a specific societal problem, and to explore, develop and try-out practical solutions. 

John Dewey, a pragmatist philosopher of a century ago, was also bothered by the unproductive gap between developing knowledge and applying knowledge. Instead, he proposed to view knowledge as fundamentally practical: knowledge emerges from engagement with practical situations and knowledge should serve the improvement of practical situations. Theory and practice are then different and complementary views on the same world.

Related to this proposal to combine theory and practice, there I would also like to put forward the proposal to combine an overall, high-level vision and practical, hands-on experimenting. An innovation project needs to operate both on a visionary and on a practical level. We need early, continuous, and iterative prototyping efforts to avoid the two pitfalls of ‘mindless action and actionless minds’.

What are your experiences with a multidisciplinary approach? What is you view on the combination of theory and practice? What are your experiences with an iterative approach?

Wellbeing as an ultimate end

In my previous post I wrote about my ambition to help to (better) focus innovation projects on promoting people’s wellbeing. This begs the following questions: What is currently wrong with these projects? And what could be done differently? I will address these questions in the next couple of posts.

Many innovation projects aim to develop technology—a product, a machine, a system, a ‘thing’. Technology, however, cannot be an end in itself. It is always a means towards an end. Therefor, we need to focus on the ends which we want to achieve with the technology we develop. We may aim to realize a sustainable energy system or to promote people’s wellbeing—to name but a few. An explicit focus on a specific and practical end, e.g., to promote healthy dietary choices in teenagers, is likely to improve the quality of decision making in a project and thus the quality of its results. Project team members can then more clearly focus on this end, rather than on the ‘thing’ they work on.

I am inspired by Aristotle’s plea to focus on ultimate ends: to focus our activities—in our case: working in an innovation project—on the ultimate end to enable people to flourish.

Now, how can our innovation projects promote people’s wellbeing? Probably not by on saying ‘thou shalt be happy’. Not by blueprinting exactly what people should do. Not by imposing my ideas on ‘the good life’ on others. But rather by creating enabling and empowering conditions for people to flourish. Each person in her or his unique way.

This is the key idea of the Capability Approach (CA), which was developed by economist Amartya Sen and philosopher Martha Nussbaum. It aims to enable and empower people to expand relevant human capabilities, so they can live lives that they value and have reason to value. Examples of such capabilities are: being able to have good health, to be adequately nourished, or to have adequate shelter (here is a list of 10 central capabilities).

The CA focuses on human development, which reduces the risk of paying too much attention to ‘things’. ‘Things’ receive attention only to the extent that they contribute to promoting wellbeing. A focus on the capability to drink fresh water would entail a focus on building wells, and also on maintenance and on cultural acceptability of new social practices, e.g., of women walking on foot to these wells.

Furthermore, the CA focuses on freedom, on creating conditions in which people can freely choose capabilities to develop so they can live different versions of ‘the good life’. This reduces the risk of prescribing specific behaviours. A focus on the capability to freely move around would entail a focus on creating enabling conditions also for people with different physical or cognitive abilities.

Moreover, the CA will enable people to participate actively and creatively in the project, in problem definition, in solution finding, and also in the adoption and implementation phases—in line with the social innovation approach, which aims to solve social problems by developing social interventions and changing social processes.

So, what would be my proposal to organize innovation projects differently?

I would love to see project managers, team members, project partners and stakeholders discuss the ultimate goals of their project in terms of enabling specific people to develop specific capabilities: ‘Project-P aims to enable an X-amount of people of group-G to develop capability-C, so that it improves with a Factor-F’. This goal can then be monitored during the project’s iterative cycles, and the project can then be steered towards this goal.

Do you work in innovation projects? Do you want to focus your work on promoting people’s wellbeing? What do you think, will it help you to articulate specific goals?

Context and ambition

After clarifying what I mean with ‘Innovation for Wellbeing’, I would now like to discuss the context in which I work and my ambition.

I work at TNO: an independent research and innovation organization in The Netherlands, which employs 3000 people. We work in diverse projects, ranging from developing intervention programs to promote healthy life styles, to the development of innovative solutions for energy and mobility. We execute our projects in close collaboration with our customers: with large and small companies, governments and NGOs, like War Child. TNO’s mission is to promote innovation and competitiveness in industry, and to facilitate societal transitions and promote wellbeing .

My role at TNO is in organizing and managing (parts of) projects. I received my training at Delft University of Technology, at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering. This school combines industrial, technological and social concerns and its curriculum is based on design thinking: the organizing of multidisciplinary and iterative processes of problem-setting and solution-finding. In addition, I did a part-time PhD at the University of Humanistic Studies, where I was introduced to various philosophical perspectives to look at, e.g., the organization of innovation projects.

At TNO and elsewhere, many projects focus on developing technology, with the risk of neglecting social and business concerns, and focus on delivering a prototype, with the risk of neglecting the scaling-up phases, which are critical to realizing positive impact in society.

My ambition is to help my colleagues and our clients to organize our projects in such ways that they effectively promote people’s wellbeing, and to evaluate our projects’ actual impact in the real world.

I feel inspired by Victor Papanek’s ‘Design for the real world’ (first published in 1971), in which he discusses various ways in which designers can contribute to making the world a better place: designing for disenfranchised people; going into the real-world and designing with them; training people locally to design locally; and training people locally to train others to develop their design capabilities (pp. 84-85, 2nd edition). To this I would like to add: to help colleagues and clients to focus on real-world problems and to develop real-world solutions that have a positive and sustainable impact in society.

What is the context in which you work? Do you have ambitions to promote people’s wellbeing and/or to create sustainable impact?


First, let’s create some clarity on what I mean with ‘innovation for wellbeing’, so we can focus our discussion. And let’s do that step-by-step.

Let’s start with the word ‘innovation’. I propose to use this word to refer to the development of new social practices, enabled by the creation of a new product, service, process or way of doing things. This focus on new social practices implies a focus on the impact of the innovation, rather than on the product or service. Moreover, this definition includes both technological innovation and social innovation, and focuses on practical applications and consequences. Furthermore, it is worth noting that, for me, a large part of the field of ‘design’ (e.g., human-centred design, product, service or interaction design) and ‘design thinking’ are included in this definition of innovation.

And how do I use the word ‘wellbeing’? I use it to refer to people’s overall wellbeing, to their flourishing as human beings. This conceptualization is rooted in the idea of ‘the good life’ (or eudaimonia), developed by Aristotle, and goes beyond the experiences of positive emotions. ‘The good life’ will include positive emotions, but also difficult emotional states, e.g., when striving to achieve something that is meaningful to them, like raising a child. Moreover, ‘the good life’ will differ greatly between people. Therefore, if we aim to promote people’s wellbeing, it is necessary to create enabling and empowering conditions for people, so they can freely choose to live their own versions of ‘the good life’.

Now, let’s bring these words together.

With ‘innovation for wellbeing’, I want to refer to the organizing of technological and social innovation, which lead to new social practices, which create enabling and empowering conditions for people to freely choose their own unique ways to flourish as human beings.

Two examples. A project that aims to develop a smartphone app to help people with a chronic disease to monitor and improve their life style and to stay healthy as much as possible. Or a project that aims to facilitate collaboration between a group of citizens and local government officials so they can jointly explore problems in the city’s living conditions and develop social interventions to improve these. Please note that in the first example the people who develop the app are different from the people who will use the app, whereas in the second example the people who develop the innovation will also collaborate in the practical application of this innovation.

What do you think? Is my understanding of ‘innovation for wellbeing’ clear? Any questions?