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?

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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?