05 – The Scalable Impact Principles Set

The IDEMS Principle
The IDEMS Principle
05 – The Scalable Impact Principles Set


Danny and David discuss the first set of principles: Scalable Impact. They present all the principles in this set, and discuss how they relate to each other, their motivation and history.

[00:00:00] David: Hi and welcome to the IDEMS Principle. I’m David Stern and I’m here with my co founding director Danny Parsons. Hi Danny.

[00:00:15] Danny: Hi David, looking forward to discussing the first set of IDEMS Principles.

[00:00:19] David: Yeah, no this is the set around Scalable Impact and of course that includes Scalable Impact, Viral Scaling, Sustainable Development and Capacity Building.

[00:00:30] Danny: Yeah, when I look at this set it’s maybe the one that looks most conventional, if I can say that, or maybe the terms in it are more well known to people.

[00:00:41] David: Some of them. Viral Scaling maybe less so than others.

[00:00:43] Danny: Yeah, yeah, but you know, Sustainable Development and in particular, but scaling and, you know, Scalable Impact is something that’s talked about more and Capacity Building, not for everyone, but something kind of well known. I think we have our own sort of approach, which makes us quite different in how we think about these and implement them. But maybe these appear less unconventional than some of the other sets that we will discuss.

[00:01:11] David: And yet, I feel in many ways, this set of principles is the one that really defines us as being unconventional.

[00:01:18] Danny: Yeah.

[00:01:19] David: It’s sort of that sort of irony in some sense that we do have a lot of the ideas, which we’re, we’re not reinventing the wheel on this. We believe in sustainable development. We’ve been learning about this. We’ve been in communities discussing sustainable development for a long time. And we have formed our own opinions on how we want to approach sustainable development and what it means to us.

[00:01:42] Danny: Yeah. And when I look at the whole set, I kind of think about how this sort of represents also our ambition as an organisation and you know, in the scalable impact, looking to go beyond just finding individual solutions towards understanding those solutions that can be replicated. That’s sort of, you know, about looking at not just individual projects and how they work in individual place, but always trying to think a bit of this bigger picture. And how, how the impact can scale and be bigger.

[00:02:14] David: And I would argue in many ways, this set of principles encapsulates what we discussed in one of our podcast episodes, why we were reluctant entrepreneurs, but we needed to leave academia, because we wanted to achieve scalable impact.

We saw that our role as academics wasn’t really leading to sustainable development. We weren’t able to take on capacity building in the way that we thought it needed to happen. And I had become obsessed by this idea of viral scaling as being important, and I couldn’t pursue that from an academic context.

[00:02:51] Danny: Yeah, and I think we were seeing that it was very difficult for projects and impact to be sustainable, that it was very project to project and very dependent on funding and grant funding in a lot of cases. And this goes up and down and this is, this is really challenging for the people who are supposed to be benefiting from, from interventions.

[00:03:16] David: And I sometimes talk about the fact that one of the reasons I was, you know, convinced by the idea of setting up IDEMS was because there was this amazing grant that I had applied for, which would have employed me potentially 100 percent of my time. But I suddenly realised that meant all my other projects would have suffered.

And I realised that, you know, as an academic, having then, you know, five years, I think it would have been, of myself employed 100 percent on this one project I really believed in, would suddenly have meant all my other initiatives would have collapsed. And that wasn’t sustainable, I’ve been spending 10 years building a lot of those up.

And so having a vehicle to be able to ensure that actually it wouldn’t become about me as an individual. That was an important motivating factor, I think, which was part of my personal reasons for taking the leap.

[00:04:14] Danny: Yeah, I think practically we’ve, we’ve been able to implement some of this in IDEMS, you know, since the beginning. The fact that we’ve been able to support projects and have projects which sometimes have funding and sometimes have gaps in funding. And as you say, in a sort of more traditional organisation and like in a university maybe, that would be difficult to justify and and so on. But that was one early benefits I guess of of of having IDEMS as that vehicle was that we were able to do that practically and support initiatives where there was that gap in funding so they could continue and then when the funding came back then they’re still going and then they haven’t gone backwards.

[00:05:01] David: I can actually point to a specific project which is one of our most important projects which had a five month funding gap and that five month funding gap was when some of their most important work was happening. We had the confidence that the follow up funding was going to be there and that this was going to happen and we rode that gap, and actually put in a huge amount of work in during that phase when for various different reasons which were due to problems with the funders at different levels, not the fault of our partners, but just complications, that funding gap could have killed the initiatives. And instead, I actually discussed with some of our collaborators on this and they’d barely even noticed there was the funding gap. This was sort of something where we were able to be a seamless in our support with them. And yes, it was a big project and so we were able to cover the cost on that in different ways. But that five month funding gap would have been catastrophic in other contexts.

[00:06:04] Danny: Yeah. And it’s not easy to do. I mean, it’s a difficult decision and a lot of people would have said that that could also be quite irresponsible of us that, you know, we’re not a funder. We rely on funds and work to sustain the organisation. So funding something ourselves, it’s potentially risky, as you said, with the funding that’s coming, but that’s never, it’s never sort of 100 percent until you’ve got it.

[00:06:30] David: And it’s not just it’s not 100 percent until you’ve got it, it’s always looking forward from when you get the funding, never looking backwards.

[00:06:36] Danny: Yeah.

[00:06:37] David: So the time we spent unfunded was genuinely unfunded. But we recognised that in some sense, that investment was strategic and it’s what laid the foundation of the collaboration, which flourished from there. And that’s this element of real sustainable development and recognising, you know, being able to think about our role and flattening out the curve. I mean, it’s just so crazy, it’s boom and bust cycles.

[00:07:10] Danny: Yeah, and we’re really trying to take this long term approach. And so in some sense, that was an obvious investment, because it was a short, relatively short period. In comparison to the ambitions and what was done before and how we saw that continuing for many years in the future.

[00:07:26] David: Yeah.

[00:07:27] Danny: And I guess that’s a nice example of implementation of sustainable development, which is quite unconventional.

[00:07:32] David: And that’s not how people see it in different ways. Sustainable development in many ways, people see is, oh, after you leave, it needs to carry on. What’s carrying on? You know, this is the sort of thing. I mean, we’ve been parts of lots of projects where they try to add a sustainable development component, which is basically, and I don’t, I don’t want to use the obvious word, which…

[00:07:53] Danny: Box-ticking.

[00:07:56] David: Thank you, that’s a much politer way of putting it. But it’s basically, as you say…

[00:08:02] Danny: Something people recognise as important, but actually, you know, not putting in the real hard thought or work in how to do that, which is tough as a reason.

[00:08:11] David: It’s not only this stuff but it’s related to the fact that most funding cycles are three to five years and most things we’re involved in which actually move the dial and achieve sustainable development take more than 10 years.

[00:08:23] Danny: Yeah.

[00:08:24] David: So, so whatever you’re looking at, if you’re looking at a three year project and you try to put in a sustainability component, well the problem in the starting point is you’ve got a three year project. You need this long termism to have that long term approach to be building things which can become sustainable.

Three years is, is so short. You know, if you’re wanting to do something genuinely new, genuinely innovative, yes, three years is a good time to get started. You can’t build sustainability in. You know, that takes time, things take time to evolve, and you need to go through the processes.

[00:09:02] Danny: Yeah, I agree with that. Can we come to Capacity Building, because that also then relates to the Sustainable Development.

[00:09:08] David: Well, it’s not just how that relates to Sustainable Development, but it’s also why that’s so important.

[00:09:13] Danny: Yeah.

[00:09:15] David: Do you want to start off with that, as you said?

[00:09:17] Danny: Yeah, I think in a lot of our projects, we specifically include a Capacity Building component, and that involves bringing in, often our partner organisations, particularly in Kenya, but in other countries as well, and building them into the actual implementation of the project.

And I think this is, this is about also that wider impact and that scalable impact that we’re never going to be able to achieve everything we just ourselves and just keeping all of the work just for ourselves and then limited by however many people we can have and however much work we can do in a day.

We have to have that collaborative approach and building the capacity of people, particularly if we’re looking at scaling in different places, the capacity in each of the different places where this is going to have to be implemented. Those are the people who actually need to do the implementation on the ground in the long run and take over the projects and we can hand things over. We know that we can get other work then or start other initiatives and set things off in another way but it’s other people who might be the ones who actually carrying this on in the long term. And we can play that capacity building role.

[00:10:30] David: Well, it’s not just that we can it’s that we have been doing it together for over 10 years. Well, if you think about you mentioned the partners in Kenya in particular, but we don’t just have partners in Kenya, we have a group in Ghana. We have people now in Niger, in Burkina Faso, in Benin, we have people in Cameroon, we have a group in Pakistan who we’re working with. They all have their own individual situations. And I think a big part of the capacity building element is we don’t have a direct agenda for them, but we support them to pursue their agendas.

And what that’s meant is that in different places, you know, and many of the people we’ve supported have gone on to further studies, to do other things, and that’s good. And they now play different roles and they maybe come back as collaborators in different ways, they become people who we want to work with in other ways, which is great. But a few of them have decided, no, this is the work they want to be doing. They want to build their careers from this. And, and that’s where it relates, you say, to the sustainable development.

We’ve actually got now in the West African context, we’ve got a, concrete internship, apprenticeship, junior fellowship, sort of sequence, which takes almost five years. And at the end of that process, the hope is that people could have got to the stage where they’re really ready to either take on and build something themselves locally or to go into something where they’re moving themselves, but they could follow a career path related to the skills that we’re giving them.

And again, that comes to the Sustainable Development. This comes to the Viral Scaling. You know, if we’re looking at scaling the ideas that we’ve got, we don’t want to do it. We want them to do it. We want to enable them to be the ones to take these ideas on and to actually make them work in that context.

[00:12:31] Danny: Yep, exactly. And we also have the sort of mentorship program as well, which is across IDEMS and different organisations really who are involved in mentorship and being mentees. And I think that’s, that’s another area that we feel is important part of the, the capacity building.

[00:12:46] David: Absolutely. At all levels. And one of the things I’ve loved is we’ve had some really senior members of staff who have been mentored by more junior members of staff and actually come out of it and said that was illuminating.

[00:12:58] Danny: Yeah. And in a sort of genuine way, not just to do it, but there are, however senior or expertise, there are areas that, you know, you don’t know about and you’d like to know about. And so you, you know, I like how the sort of program is, is on specific areas in some cases, so that you can say, yeah, I want to learn about that, even though I’m, you know, I’m on something else. And there may be junior people who, who can provide that for you.

[00:13:23] David: And what, of course, we’re quite lucky in IDEMS that many of our junior people are people who have high levels of expertise in specific things. You know, they are experts in their own right with PhDs. It’s just sort of quite an interesting balance where our junior people are real experts in their own areas, whereas quite a lot of our senior people, they may not be as academic, but they have a wealth of experience. And that has led to these really interesting partnerships.

[00:13:50] Danny: Yeah, I think this is sort of part of, you know, I mean, we’re, we’re quite passionate about education in general, but this sort of lifelong learning and continuing and, you know understanding things you don’t know and your own limitations and things like this sort of comes into that, that culture and allows people to take part in that, that kind of program.

And the other thing you mentioned was, you know, helping in capacity building, helping people in, in their interests, not just helping them to do the things that we need to do for them. I think that’s, that’s how we’ve had a lot of genuine success. And accepting that, you know, people will, as you say, go off to do different things and go off sometimes in further education, sometimes in other areas of business or they move to another country or whatever.

And that’s you know, that’s also part of our impact as well, that they don’t have to be working with us to be achieving impact and for that to have been having a benefit. And then some people, then there is a path for some people to start things up themselves, to become more close collaborators and, and, and work with us further.

And then, as you said, that becomes part of the Scalable Impact and the Viral Scaling. The Viral Scaling, you’ve said you, you sort of picked that out, that isn’t a more conventional one. And I suppose the sort of opposite of that would be something like a top down approach.

[00:15:11] David: Well, many people, when you think about scaling, you think about, well, you’ve got to go through policy change. You’ve got to get governmental support and governmental buy in to get things out at scale. Now, I don’t disagree with that. But that’s an opposite to viral scaling, that you can scale, through getting things into policy, into programs. And I’ve seen fantastic instances of this. I mean, there’s a JICA project in Kenya, should have reached almost all science teachers many, many years and gave them real training in, in, in so many imaginative things.

But part of our learning with viral scalings is that, well, the intentions were good, the processes were good, the amount of money that was spent was enormous. Impact often missed the sort of punch it could have had, because the ideas got weaker as it scaled.

[00:16:11] Danny: But this like starts at the top and then it goes down to a next level, who then train another level.

[00:16:15] David: Exactly, this cascade training model, which was sort of talked about for many years. And I still remember being not at the bottom of that cascade, but near the bottom. And it was a colleague of mine who was at the training who came back afterwards and said, you know, this is mind blowing, and it was about open questions. And after two days of training on open questions, the teachers who were going to train the next level all agreed that, you know, one of them asked the question, I love this open question stuff, but what if the open questions lead to something which is about next week’s material and not this week’s material? And all the teachers agreed that, no, no, no, no, the questions that come out of the open questions, they need to be about this week’s material, which means that they’ve not understood the whole point of open questions.

[00:17:01] Danny: Partially open in this direction.

[00:17:03] David: Exactly, yeah. Only where we’re in our comfort zone. And they were going to then be the trainers of the actual teachers. And that, to me, highlighted the danger of the, what was a wonderful approach, I mean pedagogically the open question learning is fantastic, but to get that out at scale, you know, does require, to me, a bottom up approach more than a top down approach, as is illustrated by that example.

[00:17:32] Danny: But could there not be the same kind of dilution or, you know, twisting of the sort of core idea in this viral scaling where, you know, it’s not coming from the top down, but it’s coming, going from side to side.

[00:17:43] David: From side to side in different ways. Absolutely. But that’s where the idea, and this ties in with another one of our principles, of course, Continually Evolving. The hope is then that, well, yes, maybe it does get diluted, the core idea, but the idea with Viral Scaling, it isn’t supposed to be, adoption, it’s adaptation. And therefore, because it’s adapting, well, the good adaptations should survive. And the thing which actually studying this led to for me, because this is, this goes back quite a long time, I’ve been thinking about this, I was more academic back then.

But when I was looking at this, it was this fact that actually, if you think about things in terms of viral scaling, what you recognize is you recognize that the thing you need to work on is reducing the barriers. You know, the problem isn’t necessarily in getting initiatives which can scale.

The problem is in many contexts the barriers to ideas scaling is just too high. The, the sort of structures aren’t in place. The technology isn’t designed for it. This is a really important one. And that’s central to how we build tech differently.

[00:18:50] Danny: Yeah. And you’ve actually, there’s a paper you’ve written on viral scaling quite a long time ago.

[00:18:54] David: Long time ago.

[00:18:55] Danny: Yeah.

[00:18:56] David: Conference proceedings. Yes. This came at the end of a, a long period in a Kenyan university. This was my conclusion. This was sort of deep reflection and it was this reflection that actually, what I’d done wasn’t sustainable development in many different ways. It wasn’t what I want to do in the future. It was very impactful and there were elements of it which sowed the seeds of viral scaling. And what I realized that I wanted to focus on, I wanted to try and learn how to do, was to actually get it so it was relatively easy in a context to make a positive change, to have a positive impact. But the problem was that the system was then sort of weighing down on it, and it was very difficult to sustain it.

[00:19:43] Danny: When I think about viral scaling as well, one of the sort of strengths I see of it is also how it links to, you know, some of our other sets of principles, the Options by Context set, you know, this is in contrast to that sort of top down where you have this is the method that’s going everywhere, the viral scaling sort of allows that adaptation.

[00:20:03] David: Encourages, it requires that adaptation.

[00:20:06] Danny: Yes. And this, you know, links to this Options by Context so that it’s not you know, it’s unlikely to have sort of single solutions that are going to work for everyone in every context. And yeah, you should embrace those adaptations, not really see them as dilutions. Hopefully you see them as improvements in that context. And then they can then maybe go to other contexts where they hadn’t thought of them and so on.

[00:20:32] David: And the key point is that it’s not about dilution or improvement. This is what I love about this sort of Options by Context, Continually Evolving as principles, which sort of will come in later. But it is about the fact that in a different context, different things might work better. Be they better or not is not the matter, is not the point.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a sort of better or worse, it’s a question of what is adapted to that context and enabling that and then being able to study that and try to use that to ways to learn. And this is this idea of good viral scaling, and everybody’s much more aware COVID, because people are really aware of sort of what, what viral scaling actually means because, you know, you had the first phases of COVID, which was a particular disease, and then every subsequent wave actually was about one variant of the disease outcompeting the others, because it was so viral as a disease.

[00:21:32] Danny: Also this aspect, it’s, well, not always in negative, you know, ways like a virus, but in sort of how trends or whatever sort of get popular. It’s that you can’t plan or predict exactly what’s going to be the dominant, or the next thing that scales, that goes viral.

[00:21:50] David: Yes.

[00:21:50] Danny: And that, you know, that’s an opportunity for things to happen which would never have happened if you had tried to plan it.

[00:21:56] David: Exactly, exactly. It’s that, that, that’s such an important part. And to me, thinking about scalable impact in terms of viral scaling is very exciting. And I can’t claim that we’ve really nailed it yet. We’ve never had anything really go viral as I hope might happen in the future, but it’s not really about us going viral.

And this is, I think, a real key thing. Most of our work is about us supporting our partners and taking them on this journey and getting them to be interested in things which could do that. And that’s been a real journey in its own right.

[00:22:30] Danny: And I think this really speaks to then the long term, long term kind of thinking that, that kind of ties a lot, all of these together, I feel.

[00:22:37] David: Exactly.

[00:22:37] Danny: And the sort of ambition of, as you said, not the ambition for ourselves to, to have something ourselves that’s very big, but for the impact, ambitious in, in terms of the impact.

[00:22:49] David: That’s our vision. Our vision is to sort of be able to contribute to impact grand challenges. So yeah.

[00:22:59] Danny: Nice way to finish.

[00:23:00] David: Finish the episode. Yeah. This has been a, it’s been a good discussion. I’ve enjoyed this.

Thank you.