Does scaling a solution shift a system?

Seashell cutaway spiral

Latest blog update from the Skoll Centre’s main research initiative, the Systems Change Observatory. In this section, we report on a series of ‘positions’ regarding how scaling up links with systems change. What is especially interesting: everyone has a view on this! And the views differ in ways that are both analytically useful and practical for policy and impact.

One recurring theme is funders stating they fund systems change while in practice they support an enterprise scaling the scope of its work or potential a class of enterprises doing so. The discussion on collaborative systems change strategies raised a salient question in the field: does scaling up a solution by one actor create change in a system vs implementing a strategy to change the system itself?

“There is a difference between a scaled solution and systems change. Affecting lots of people is not same thing as systems change.”

– Systems thinking educator working with a Foundation, USA

Members from the initial convening who work directly on designing social ventures stated that large-scale impact generation through the scaling up of a solution was not synonymous with systems change. This is where things become both complex and analytically interesting – and with substantial implications for policy and practice. From our interview process, our respondents stated that the following factors determine whether an intervention qualifies as systems change.


For many, systems change is understood to involve a permanent shift in outcomes generated by the system’s configuration. When scaling up a solution, the long-term impact of the intervention may be intended but is not always explicitly considered. What outcomes occur across the system when the intervention is completed? The more complex a system is, the more complex the outcomes of any specific intervention and its long-term impact.

“Inherently, [Systems Change] is a long-term effort, highly adaptive, no finish line, there is no point at which you say it’s done. Going from broken to fixed is not something we can answer objectively.”

– Academic and Venture Partner in the Social Entrepreneurship space, USA

Root Cause Analysis

Another starting is considering a solution that does not affect the root cause of a problem – it would not be considered a systems change intervention.  This position opens up many intriguing and tough questions.

“[As] an example, suppose we used a boat to clean plastic from ocean gyres and collected millions of tons of plastic from the sea. This could create a lot of positive environmental impact. However, if the intervention fails to address the root cause of the problem, which is plastic entering the ocean from land, it would not qualify as systems change no matter how much we scale up the solution. Similarly, there are a lot of projects around the world that create a lot of positive social and environmental impact, but they do not necessarily have to be considered systems change.”

– Systems thinking educator working with a Foundation, USA

Large-scale Programmes vs. Systems Change

Respondents also points out a key issue: how the scale of the system that we want to address is shaped in important ways by boundary judgments by the funder and other stakeholders. The intervention itself can address the same problem at varying levels of scale, such as optimising the collection of food waste in a single housing unit versus implementing a national food waste collection programme. Simply undertaking an intervention at a large scale does not qualify it as systems change.

“There is a difference between a scaled solution and systems change. Affecting lots of people is not the same thing as systems change. That’s where things get muddy. [An] example would be giving people a mobile banking app. You could deploy that to address the need but it does nothing to exit poverty or stop more people from becoming poor. Even though it could affect people, it is not systems change.”

– Systems thinking educator working with a Foundation, USA

Scaling Deep

The issues and complex behaviours that need to be addressed in systems change require an approach that is quite different from quickly scaling a solution. It requires an implementer to be fully embedded in that system to understand the barriers to change and act accordingly. At the McConnell Foundation, this is referred to as “scaling deep”, which focuses more on long-term understanding the culture than creating an innovation that emerges from that context and that can be diffused elsewhere (Riddell et al. 2015).

‘Day to day systems change is about building lasting relationships in the system and that requires time, sense of self awareness, influencing skills. Scaling fast doesn’t work because you are not building relationships in the system.’

– Social Innovation Expert, UK

In summary, while scaling a solution and systems change can be concurrent and linked activities, this is not always the case. We can scale a solution without creating a permanent shift in the system or addressing the root cause of a problem. We can also create systems change at a small, local scale and focus on embedding people and solutions in the system to gain a deep understanding of the local context, something that is much more challenging at scale. These differences are essential and critical to understand types of systems change.


Mulgan, G., Ali, R., Halkett, R & Sanders, B (2007). In and out of sync: The challenge of growing social innovations. England, National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

Darcy, M & Michele-Lee, M (2015). Scaling Out, Scaling Up, Scaling Deep: Advancing Systemic Social Innovation and the Learning Processes to Support it. Canada, J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and Tamarack Institute.

Savaget, P. & Ventresca, M (2019). Conceptions of Systems Change: early research findings. Presentation at the Skoll Foundation, August 2019, Palo Alto. 

Savaget, P & Ventresca, M (in progress). Conceptions of Systems Change: an investigation of global funders in the social impact space. 

Author(s): Nikhil Dugal is a systems change consultant with the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship. He is a Skoll Scholar, having completed his MBA from the Saïd Business School in 2018.