Scaling Innovation: It Takes An Ecosystem

UNDP Accelerator Labs
7 min readAug 4, 2020

By Akshara Baru, Alexandra de Sá Moreira Treat, David Lonnberg, Eva Hoermann, Fares Taher, Mihret Moges, Zixin Yang, Columbia University SIPA

A Hands-On Scaling Strategy for the UNDP Accelerator Labs — Developed by a Team from Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA)


For more details on the project background, please read our first blog post “Developing a hands-on strategy around scaling social innovation for development” here.

Our team from Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA)

To accelerate progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), UNDP established one of the world’s largest and fastest learning networks focused on development challenges — the UNDP Accelerator Labs. Currently, 60 Accelerator Labs are established, supporting 78 countries facilitating grassroots innovation to tackle development challenges in different country contexts with a bottom-up approach. Since the launch, the UNDP Accelerator Labs have been working on solutions mapping, testing, and experimentation and are now entering the Grow phase of their work.

It’s not a Lab of the three of us but rather 20, 30, 50 people from the [UNDP] office who are early adopters of innovative methodologies who want to change the usual way of doing business.” The Serbia Accelerator Lab

Our research project aims to provide a hands-on strategy including a scaling framework and toolkit for the Accelerator Labs to scale social innovation as they enter the next phase of their learning cycle.

How we did it

Our mission was to develop a clearly defined and structured strategy that is flexible but also takes into account feedback-loops within the Accelerator Labs’ complex environment. As a result, our research methodology uses a collaborative approach involving the perspectives of all 60 Accelerator Labs, while complementing the insights with secondary research. This enabled us to learn from the experiences of the Accelerator Labs on what works, and what doesn’t, and develop a strategy that would be practical, and applicable in various contexts.

“To approach things from a level of humility, listen and understand the process, people, partners, pressures they are confined in. Coming in with openness instead of biases. Be open to absorb true factors needed to take into consideration to adjust.” The Philippines Accelerator Lab

The Stages of the SIPA team Primary Research: Online Survey, Phone interviews, Country Deep-dives and Focus Groups

So How Do We Scale Innovation in Development?

Scaling social innovation to address national challenges and achieve the SDGs is a layered, complex, and nonlinear process. With the support of UNDP’s Accelerator Labs Network, our team developed a scaling strategy with two main components: A scaling framework and a toolkit.

The scaling framework provides guidance for the Labs to develop a vision for scale — this includes questions intended to help the Labs think through and design a successful scaling strategy applicable to their own contexts. The toolkit is designed to be flexible and focuses on the practical challenges faced by the Labs in scaling a portfolio of innovative solutions. We envision that the Accelerator Labs network will be able to draw from the different components of the toolkit and develop a tailored strategy based on their needs. The toolkit also provides practical insights and recommendations which are all brought to life through stories.

“Many solutions already exist. We need to focus on solving the problem collectively, not creating new solutions.” Strategy and Policy Unit, Uganda UNDP Office

The Scaling Framework: Scaling Process, Product and Service Line Innovations

To operationalize the scaling strategy, we developed a conceptual scaling framework to help answer the questions of WHAT could be scaled, and HOW scaling could look. Our scaling framework outlines three types of social innovation and three types of scaling. Drawing from examples of the Labs’ work, we discovered that social innovation could take the form of product innovation, process innovation, service line innovation, or a combination of some of them.

We started with the idea that scaling needs to be approached in 3D to achieve systems change at scale. Thus, the scaling concept by Moore and Riddell 2015 particularly resonated with us and inspired our strategy that identifies scaling of social innovation as Scaling Out, Scaling Up, and Scaling Deep, or a combination of all or some of these types of scaling. Scaling Out includes achieving greater numbers through the adoption of the innovation; Scaling Up involves institutional and policy changes to further the innovation; Scaling Deep is impacting culture through innovation that alters behaviors and norms.

The Scaling Toolkit: A Practical Guide

Our toolkit starts with supporting the Accelerator Labs to build a vision for scale. Then it guides the Accelerator Labs teams to understand how they can create a successful coalition of stakeholders and leverage different stakeholders within the in-country innovation ecosystem. Additionally, it provides hands-on guidance on how to make use of the necessary resources for scaling. Finally, learning how to scale is key to the Labs’ iterative cycle. Thus, the final section of our toolkit aims to help Labs think through building collective intelligence and learning from failure.

Our Scaling Toolkit

“Forming partnerships with the private sector, such as banks and incubation hubs, to assist in scaling validated solutions. These types of institutions have past experience in scaling solutions by providing funding, access to markets, and access to business development experts.” UNDP South Africa Accelerator Lab

Our toolkit provides recommendations, guiding questions, and stories on scaling social innovation through each component within the four sections:

  1. Envisioning scaling: Provides guidance to creating a structured vision that will help provide a better chance of scaling.

“The Serbia Accelerator Lab is working on the issue of depopulation in the country. The issue was identified after an analysis of the socio-economic realities and government policy priorities. As there is a consensus on the need to address this challenge, the Accelerator Lab has seen increased ecosystem support to tackle the issue.” UNDP Serbia Accelerator Lab

2. Ecosystem for scaling: Looks at the different actors within the innovation ecosystem, providing instructions to leverage stakeholders to create a more cohesive ecosystem for scaling.

“The Accelerator Lab can be a bridge between small and flexible organizations within the large UN system and government.” Returning Point, an organization in Serbia that aims at providing adequate information to the Serbian diaspora on the range of matters.

3. Resources for scaling: Discusses the access to necessary resources for scaling, with recommendations for capacity building, financial sustainability, knowledge sharing, legal aspects, and the policy framework.

“Scaling in Uganda is typically small due to the limitations of entrepreneur ambition in poor economies. SINA mentored us and helped us dream big.” Uganics, Innovation supported by Social Innovation Academy (SINA), Uganda

“The Tanzania Accelerator Lab is partnering with a human development innovation fund to set up the first innovation fund in Tanzania and a crowdsourcing platform (innovation Atlas) that will help innovators to put their innovations online, which is a good source to get information.” UNDP Tanzania Accelerator Lab

4. Learning from scaling: specifies how the Accelerator Labs and their network can learn from their scaling efforts individually, and collectively.

“Knowledge sharing from other countries or regions is needed for the solutions on similar challenges. The Accelerator Labs global team has, for example, consolidated and shared the focus areas for each Accelerator Lab (water, youth employment, etc.), but a more detailed view on the actual projects will be useful to share and gather insights.” UNDP South Africa Accelerator Lab

These four sections help the Accelerator Labs think openly and broadly on what their strengths are and where they need support. Within each section, there are between 4 to 7 components. These components contain stories, and recommendations to help the Accelerator Labs think more critically and drill-down into the specific questions. This way, we encourage horizontal instead of sequential reading of the report as Labs can direct their attention specifically to components and questions that are most relevant to their realities.

What’s Next?

The UNDP Accelerator Labs network can use this framework and toolkit in several different ways and different stages of their scaling process to help guide informational needs around scaling social innovation. The Labs can also use our report to develop country-specific scaling strategies, all of which can be facilitated through a workshop or boot camp. The framework and toolkit are also great resources to use when discussing further thoughts around scaling with other Labs and when conducting in-country stakeholder meetings around envisioning scale.

Indeed, the process of scaling social innovation is layered, complex, and nonlinear. Our research advocates for an approach where the scaling of a social innovation is considered achieved when the impact of its scale matches the level of social need. The UNDP Accelerator Labs are just beginning to show their potential to redefine how a bottom-up approach can support the scaling of social innovation for development.

We are looking forward to seeing how the Labs evolve, grow, and create impact that will help us achieve the SDGs.

P.S. If you are interested to learn more about our methodology and process, feel free to reach us at



UNDP Accelerator Labs

Building the world’s largest learning network around development challenges. 91 Labs in 115 countries.