Skip to Content

Scaling and Diffusion

There are many methods for growing social innovations – from organisational growth and franchising to collaboration and looser diffusion. Some of these involve scaling – a metaphor taken from manufacturing. Others are better understood as more organic – ‘cut and graft’, with ideas adapting as they spread, rather than growing in a single form. Indeed, most social ideas have spread not through the growth of an organisation but through emulation. The supply of ideas and demand for them tend to co-evolve: there are relatively few fields where there are straightforward solutions which can simply be spread.

In this section, we look at a variety of ways to grow and spread innovations. There are marked differences between the spread and diffusion of innovations in the social and market economies. The private economy is structured to reserve the benefits of an innovation to its own organisation or to those licensees or franchisees willing to pay for it. The social economy – being primarily oriented around social missions, favours the rapid diffusion of an innovation rather than keeping it private. This is one reason why the social economy has less compulsion to organisational growth and more towards collaborative networking as a way of sharing innovation.

Organisation and scale

There are currently pressures to promote mergers and takeovers within the grant economy. However, we suggest that in a distributed economy a different conception of scale is needed, one that focuses on economies of information and communication and structures that can deliver that. Organisations within the social economy have less compulsion to organisational growth and more towards collaborative networking as a means of sharing innovation.


Some ideas spread because of their qualities as ideas: they are inherently inspiring, arresting and engaging. Relatively few however spread on their own: more often clusters of ideas spread together, each creating the conditions for others to be received more easily.

Diffusing demand

The promotion of social innovation has tended to focus on the supply side and how innovations can be diffused among service providers through experts, intermediaries and collaboration. However, we argue that the design of services should start from the user, and that its diffusion should be approached from the perspective of users, not least because they are in many cases also co-producers.

Scaling and diffusion in the public sector

Scaling in the public sector has some overlaps with other fields but also important differences. Governments can grow an idea simply by legislating it, or turning it into a programme. Or they can encourage it by persuasion or through the influence of regulators. The methods described above for sustaining an idea are also key to spreading it, including defining the idea in policy or programmes.

Commissioning and procurement

Governments are big customers of goods and services. Government in the UK purchases £125 billion worth of goods and services. Alongside initiation, escalation and embedding, public procurement plays a role in relation to consolidation by purchasing services at scale.