Secrets of scale: 6 steps to growing big quickly

When Twitter turned 7 last month, I was struck by how rapidly many new things have become mainstream. Facebook, iPads, eBay, ready meals and all sorts of things that hardly existed 10 years ago are now part of our day-to-day lives. Yet this sort of rapid scale up is just not happening when it comes to solving the sustainability challenges that are also reshaping the way that we live.

To get to a brilliant future where green businesses prosper over their competitors, we need scale, and fast. In energy, we need many renewable technologies to seriously replace hydrocarbons, for example, alongside more business models that promote energy efficiency. Scale is also critical to chief sustainability officers who want to increase their impact internally, or to ensure their sustainable products and services grow beyond niche. And in current constrained times, where companies are under constant pressure to improve performance, this quest for scale has become even more urgent.

So how do you do it? And what can we learn from the rapid mainstreamers such as eBay or Twitter to help scale more sustainable solutions?

Based on over 15 years of experience working with business to solve tricky sustainability challenges, Forum for the Future has developed six “pathways to scale” that we have seen increase the chances of making something mainstream.

  1. The first pathway is to inspire and enable influencers. Scale starts with people, who transfer messages and motivate others to do things. How many of us got into eBay because a friend raved about the excitement of the auction? To get to scale you need to inform, educate and inspire people and help them do things differently. To this end, we took a powerful group of civil society leaders to Germany last year to show them how renewable energy works at a community level, especially if there are direct benefits through ownership. These leaders, ranging from the Church of England to the Women’s Institute (a significant powerhouse in the U.K.), took what they learned back to their millions of members to encourage the take-up of the ideas.
     
  2. Second, communication and behavior change have unparalleled potential to amplify innovations and create momentum. Through great messaging and engagement, we can let people know what’s worked and provide the tools to replicate it. Unilever’s five levers for change is a simple video that shows how they can help their customers do greener things. Nike Foundation’s Girl Effect demonstrates a powerful route to tackling poverty through raising awareness of the challenges that girls face. It has galvanized a powerful network of aid agencies focused on girls as a route to wider change in developing countries.
     
  3. Networks and collaboration come next. Getting people together to work on the same thing improves the chances of change, especially when collective activities add up to more than the sum of their parts. The power of networks is central to the success of Twitter and Facebook, but we need to be smarter about applying this thinking to sustainability. Both big collaborations, such as our Shipping program, and in-company champions or Green Teams help accelerate sustainable practices and join up different activities to increase impact.
     
  4. A slightly different, but no less important, route is incubating and accelerating entrepreneurs and technologies. Historically, lots of big social and economic changes have been driven by entrepreneurs, from Martha Stewart or Anita Roddick to Larry Page or Mark Zuckerberg. Growing and supporting sustainable business is an important part of creating scale where more sustainable products, services and business models replace less sustainable ones. Companies can do this through a range of things including venture funds, sponsorship and incubation programs.
     
  5. Then we come to barrier removal — replacing the status quo through removing barriers and “lock-in.” Learning from eBay suggests that you get further by providing a better way that replaces rather than removes an existing structure (the shopping mall). I have long been an advocate of exciting new solutions to run towards. But we have to acknowledge that scale often stops because of pervasive barriers — locked in infrastructure in energy or insufficient energy storage technologies, or lack of customer engagement in what they eat. These are not easily solved and need heavy doses of innovation and collaboration to get to good solutions.
     
  6. Our final pathway is financial models, measures and standards. These are of course barriers, too, but given the number of times finance or measurement is mentioned as a blocker of change, we have made them a pathway in their own right. In fact, financing was a major barrier for eBay in the early days before the advent of PayPal. In our Sustainable Shipping Initiative — a collaboration of industry leaders aiming to transition to a more sustainable shipping industry — we identified split incentives as a major barrier to getting more renewable energy and efficient technologies on ships. So, with a small group of industry players including lawyers and financiers, we have developed a new financial model that enables owners, charterers and financiers to share the risks and benefits of technology retrofits.

Of course, all of this is easier said than done. Unfortunately, the scale we need for a sustainable future is not quite as simple as growing an eBay or a Twitter, but there are lessons to be learned. At Forum for the Future, we are finding that by combining these Pathways to Scale and ensuring a strong element of collaboration and innovation you really can increase the chances of creating the sort of tipping point and that will get us faster to the sustainable future that we want to see. Let’s see what sustainable scale we can create in the next seven years.

Concept of growth forecast statistics by alphaspirit via Shutterstock.