"Science of Scaling": Strengthening the network of researchers passionate about innovation for responsible impact at scale

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By Esther Kihoro, ILRI Impact at Scale Program and Wageningen University and Research; Marc Schut, Portfolio Performance Unit in CGIAR Systems Organization and Wageningen University and Research; Cees Leeuwis, Wageningen University and Research; and Erin McGuire, Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Horticulture at the University of California at Davis. 

Why does scaling matter? 

CGIAR, the world’s largest publicly funded agricultural research network, has developed many innovative solutions for the developing world’s smallholder farmers. While CGIAR excels at developing agricultural innovations, bridging gaps between innovative solutions and widespread impact remains a challenge. Scaling innovations for smallholder farmers faces various challenges including 1) how to align innovation demand and supply, 2) how to ensure innovations that are developed in controlled research environments can survive the complex realities of smallholder farming, and 3) how to effectively work together and co-invest with public and private sector to make scaling happen. It is important to recognize that scaling innovations is not an “end goal”, but rather a means to achieve desired outcomes and transformative change.  

Science of scaling 

This is where the science of scaling comes in. By understanding the intricate factors at play, it can contribute to increasing the likelihood that innovations effectively respond to the context-specific challenges faced by farmers. This was at the heart of a two-day “Science of Scaling” retreat organized by Wageningen University & Research under the CGIAR Research Initiative on Diversification in East and Southern Africa (Ukama Ustawi). The science of scaling work was initiated under the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Banana (RTB), which published a Special Issue on the topic in Elsevier’s Agricultural Systems journal in 2020. 

The retreat aimed to bring together a growing network of scaling scientists and for them to share knowledge, exchange scaling methods, and advance the scaling science agenda. Held at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi, Kenya on 18–19 March 2024, the retreat brought together 18 scientists, researchers, and PhD candidates representing  the African Centre for Technologies Studies (ACTS), the University of California at Davis, and Wageningen University & Research, as well as 5 CGIAR Centers, including the Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT (ABC), ILRI, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), International Potato Center (CIP), and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI).  

An inspirational kick-off by World Food Prize Laureate Jan Low 

Jan Low presented the scaling trajectory  of the orange-fleshed sweet potato (OFSP) developed by CIP, highlighting its potential impact on human health.  She noted that achieving widespread adoption, or “scaling” as she termed it, requires a multi-pronged approach. Firstly, scaling takes time and commitment. She emphasized the need for a significant investment of time and commitment over an extended period. Second, successful scaling necessitates challenging traditional assumptions and practices. We must be willing to question the status quo to identify the most effective pathways for innovation uptake. Third, tailoring the approach to specific contexts is essential. She noted the need to go out in the field and observe context-specific needs for the innovation to scale. Finally, Low noted that scaling must run parallel to ongoing research endeavors to tackle emerging bottlenecks effectively. 

Exploring new horizons 

Participants actively discussed innovative directions in scaling theories and methodologies. Cees Leeuwis, a professor at Wageningen University & Research, presented the history of scaling science. His talk emphasized the evolution from innovation adoption and diffusion approaches towards more complex innovation systems approaches.  

Erin McGuire, director of the USAID Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Horticulture at the University of California at Davis, presented a framework for categorizing research methods which formed a starting point for identifying new theories and methods that can advance scaling science.

Science of scaling retreat participants prioritizing methods and theories (photo credit: ILRI/Marvin Wasonga).
Science of scaling retreat participants prioritizing methods and theories (photo credit: ILRI/Marvin Wasonga).

Key discussion points noted on the ways forward include the following: 

  1. Use social theories and systems thinking: Scaling work has no “one-size-fits-all” approach. By integrating social theories such as feminism and power analysis, as well as the structure/agency dualism, we can gain insights into how scaling manifests in real-world contexts. 
  2. Employ AI: Tools powered by artificial intelligence (AI) can be leveraged to analyze data, personalize experiences, and predict future trends. This can help organizations to make better decisions, automate processes, and customize solutions at scale. 
  3. Leverage influencers through sentiment analysis: researchers and practitioners working on scaling can leverage on Influencers to amplify the reach and impact of scaling initiatives. Also, analyzing sentiments and narratives can provide valuable insight on innovation scaling and a platform for monitoring and evaluation. 
  4. Apply private-sector lessons: Applying private-sector expertise in areas such as innovation, market analysis, and efficiency management, and bringing in private-sector experts, testing their methods, and adapting them to the non-profit context can enhance public-sector research innovation effectiveness and sustainability. 
  5. Attend to upstream–downstream links: Scaling initiatives must consider the needs of end users as well as bridge the gap between user needs and available solutions. They must also navigate the broader political and cultural realities where innovation users live. 
  6. Gamify scaling pathways: Gamification can be a useful tool for helping innovators to better understand diverse stakeholder experiences. By simulating real-life scenarios, the use of games in scaling processes can reveal key success factors, barriers, and human decision-making. Gamification can also be a platform for experimenting with institutional innovations. By testing out new institutional designs through games, teams can identify effective solutions to address bottlenecks. 
  7. Discourse analysis: Discourse analysis evaluates how specific narratives gain traction and become widely accepted. This research can be used to explore the dynamics of how conversations, beliefs, and opinions evolve, identifying the factors that trigger these shifts and ultimately lead to the dominance of a particular discourse in innovation scaling. 

The final aspect discussed was the importance of having practical tools for achieving successful scaling. The following, science-based methodologies were presented as examples to support this notion. 

  • Scaling Readiness: The Scaling Readiness method was highlighted as a practical example of a system tool that supports innovative scaling. Scaling Readiness assesses an innovation’s level of readiness for scaling from an ‘idea’ (level 0) to being ‘ready’ (level 9); this assessment helps to ensure that “innovation packages” include both the core and complementary interventions needed to facilitate wide adoption of an innovation (https://www.scalingreadiness.org/). 
  • GenderUp: was discussed as a tool that helps in ensuring responsible scaling of innovation. Scaling strategies must embrace diversity, including intersectional gender issues, and tailor approaches accordingly. GenderUp is a conversational method that supports innovation teams in effecting responsible scaling (https://genderup.ucdavis.edu/). 

A steppingstone for success 

The retreat’s participants emphasized the importance of continuous engagement to foster knowledge sharing and collaboration. For the PhD candidates, this opportunity to join a network of leading agricultural scaling researchers and practitioners proved invaluable. And all the participants expressed interest in building a powerful network for collective action and knowledge exchange. This includes the potential of aligning with the global Scaling Up Community of Practice. 


The authors would like to acknowledge all colleagues who contributed to the scaling science retreat: Marc Schut, Esther Kihoro, Erin McGuire, Cees Leeuwis, Susan MacMillan, Nicoletta Buono, Lennart Woltering, Hauke Dahl, Million Gebreyes, Ijudai Jasada, Samuel Mugambi, Katheryn Gregerson, Ebenezer Ngissah, Dagmawi Melaku, Dorcas Kalele, Hanna Ewell, Loraine Ronchi, Iddor Dror. The Science of Scaling retreat was funded by the CGIAR Research Initiative on Diversification in East and Southern Africa (Ukama Ustawi).  

We thank all funders who supported this work through their contributions to the CGIAR Trust Fund. https://www.cgiar.org/funders/

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