by and

Filed under: Development Development 2.0 Social innovation

salmon swimming up river

An upstream battle? Pacific Salmon sacrifice themselves so that their bodies can stimulate algae growth necessary to feed their spawn

It was great to get so many comments and reactions – both online and off – to our recent post on re-framing “scaling up” in development.

We also happily adopted the affectionate (or so we hope!) nickname of “finch fund” for our initiative, as coined by Duncan Green (with thanks!). Our aim is to ultimately come up with a set of criteria that can spur the growth of development innovation activities without falling into the “replication of best practice” or the ‘bigger, faster, cheaper’ trap.

In the spirit of working out loud, and as we gear up for our get-together later this month in New York City, we’d like to present a quick update on where we stand in our thinking.

We have to acknowledge that there is still a major language barrier between the various disciplines and that translating multi-disciplinary insights into tangible criteria applicable to the “finch fund” will require a significant amount of honing.

At the same time, we like to think that this is just the beginning of a process of finding a common vocabulary and set of metaphors that can help us move forward.

1. Insight from science: Boundaries are permeable and self-created

Philosophy professor Alicia Juarrero points out that boundaries in complex adaptive systems are permeable: more like membranes than walls.

They are stable enough to do their job as organizing constraints, but flexible enough to allow for modification, adaptability, evolution. Boundaries are self-created, not imposed from the outside and are the results of the dynamics between different components.


Giving a dam: Beavers have learned over time how to adapt to destruction of their habitats

Consider the beaver.

Throughout time, beavers in the wild have had to learn the hard way that the dams they construct get wiped out several times a year. So, at some point, they started accounting for that – they started building dams faster and faster.

A zoo, on the other hand, provides a secure, wall-like boundary for beavers with neither the feedback of dams being wiped out seasonally nor the ability for them to modify and evolve.

Imagine how shocked a domesticated beaver from the zoo would be if he met his cousin from the wild!

Implication for development:

  • When we talk about scaling up, are we trying to design “utopian”, “zoo-like” systems that are impermeable to outside influences and therefore do not allow for modification and adaptability?

  • How do we structure a fund in such a way that it picks up on signals of locally generated dynamics and boundaries and allows for autonomous modification –  rather than trying to impose artificial boundaries?

  • How do we institutionalize second chances for local actors (as opposed to donors/funding institutions?)

  • Can we build a criteria for “self-help” projects where those leading activities that we would like to scale can get access to the resources and organizational support they need?

2. Insight from science: Diversity as a source of feedback and adaptation

A larger variety (as opposed to number) of components – or a micro-diversity of niches – allows for a better chance at successfully probing the system.

More diverse participation naturally means more diverse feedback – it’s this that will give our projects and initiatives the resilience necessary to grow and evolve.

Tim Allen, an ecologist and Professor of Botany and Environmental Studies, has shared a number of examples with us (including the beaver from the previous point) and we thought his one about Pacific salmon is a perfect demonstration of this insight:

Fishermen in the Western United States recently started witnessing a reduced catch with many dead salmon surfacing during the spawning season. As a remedy, ecologists re-stocked the river with fertilized eggs from farmed salmon but this didn’t solve the problem.

It wasn’t the eggs that were dying, but the salmon themselves – and only after swimming upstream and spawning.

So what was the problem?

Whereas rivers in the eastern United States, flow through wooded areas, rich in necessary food for fish, those on the west coast are located in deserts – habitats that offer little mineral nutrients for the salmon.

So in order to ensure their survival, grown salmon were effectively sacrificing themselves, turning their deceased bodies into nutrients that stimulate algal growth and feed their soon-to-be-hatched baby salmon.

If ecologists considered feedback data from multiple sources (e.g. the fishermen, the river and salmon ecosystems) they would’ve figured out that the solution was putting mineral nutrients in the water at the time of laying eggs.

They were honed in on the wrong problem.

Implication for development:

  • How do we move away from log frames and top-down indicators towards a variety of inputs/probes that ensure diversity from across the system we want to change?

  • Is there a way to consciously target micro-niches in project design (e.g. by focusing on the “edgeryders“)

  • Should we consider stimulating the emergence of micro-niches in contexts where there is a high level of homogeneity; alternately, should we go as as far as forgetting about scaling up in a context which lacks sufficient diversity?

As you can see, at this stage we have more open questions than answers.

We are really looking forward to our meeting at the end of the month to see whether we can crystallize these insights into a set of criteria that can better inform our practice.

Watch this space!   


  • E H

    “…a reduced catch with many dead salmon surfacing during the spawning season”.
    I’m confused – ALL North Pacific salmon die after spawning. Am I missing something?

  • Millie

    EH, thanks for the comment! The reference to salmon comes from the upcoming book my the ecologist Timothy Allen- the difference between ecosystems through which Western US rivers vs those on the East Coast run through impact salmon by the amount of mineral nutrients they provide (in part causing what is happening to north pacific salmon). For us in development, this was interesting from the perspective of what sources of information do you consider to diagnose a problem whereas if you focus on fewer sources or sources that come from smaller number of backgrounds, you may be blindsided to what is actually happening. Happy to put you in touch with prof Allen if you’re interested in this particular case?

  • EH

    Thanks Millie. I understand your basic premise of more diverse input being beneficial (avoiding the pitfalls of “groupthink”). That seems like a no-brainer. However, in your analogy I think you’ve misinterpreted Dr. Allen’s findings. The pacific salmon aren’t making a choice to die, it is just part of the natural life cycle. The resident bear and bird populations know this full well (haha). Surely the ecologists were aware of this phenomenon too. The dots aren’t connecting. Perhaps I’ll check out his book when it’s available.

    • Millie

      EH, thanks for the
      back-and-forth! J Enjoying it! Any mis-interpretation of prof. Allen’s book is my own failing, he has certainly invested a lot of time in talking us through some of the processes he is seeing in ecology! On the salmon- the important point for us is that the ecologists themselves initially honed on a wrong issue- a population problem vs an ecosystem problem (which demands a different solution that the one initially applied- initially the solution was to supply small fish from
      hatcheries, and not what the dead salmon actually needed- the nutrients that were missing in the western rivers). In development, we often make mistakes by misidentifying the context or in making
      very biased assumptions (based on feedback coming from very few sources or sources not properly embedded in the local context). So in a way, the salmon example gets us to think through how the most obvious solutions may be wrong and what we may need to do is be open to other contexts, actively seek them out in order to put
      puzzles together which may lead to different development solutions.

      PS. on this being a ‘no-brainer,’ at least from my perspective, there tends to be a big gap what we think is ‘obvious’ and integrating that into the decision making. a lot of people who are far smarter than i am have been thinking and been obsessed with going to scale in development without having much success in reconciling those strategies with ‘local context’ for example.

  • Alberto Cottica

    Salmons might be a dead end, but it is clear that using metaphors from biology as opposed to engineering (“scaling”, “replicating” etc.) is already leading to fresh thinking around development. What intrigues me in the post is that seems to be a sort of fractal dimension in economic and social processes: at every scale – from niche to global – you are likely to find changemakers, enabling conditions etc. that are relevant at that scale. The equivalent of the beavers getting out from the zoo might be, at the city level, some social enterprise that – after a period of being incubated – needs to compete for office space with deep-pocketed commercial businesses; at the national level it might be an already scaled-up enterprise that needs to face international competition. Each “level” is enabled – but not implied – by the level immediately below it.

    Again, diversity in ecology drives success by expanding the “adjacent possible”, the set of all higher-order building blocks that nature can build with the building blocks she already has. This key idea (by Kaufman and others) has been ported to development economics in some sense, by the very promising concept of “product space” championed by Ricardo Hausman and César Hidalgo.

    Keep up the good work, guys. I think you are onto something.

    • Millie

      Alberto, thanks! The devil is in details that is how do we start designing for some of the lessons we’re learning- some that may be a ‘no brainer’ as EH has pointed out but that we have had trouble using as a method for decision making, for better design of projects. From your comment, my main question around strategies that social enterprise ought to use to make it ‘out into the wild’? Erg, the learning continues :)

      • Alberto Cottica

        Uh – I think a verb is missing from your question. But in general, let me put it this way. The beaver story suggests that protecting good things (for some value of good things appropriate to development: programs, incubated enterprises, research facilities, whatever) is dangerous, as it stops them from building up the routines and knowledge to survive in the wild. Candidate solution: short launch ramps, followed by sink-or-swim whenever possible. Implication: do many small things rather than few large ones to distribute risk. Second-order implication: set your organization well away from micro-management, impossibly expensive. Third-order implication: redesign accountability to be stochastic – that x% of the things you do fail is a feature, not a bug. Do you see?

  • Mariana Wongtschowski

    Milie, Giulio,
    At KIT (Royal Tropical Institute) we have done some work (and thinking!) on scaling up related to agricultural development-interventions. Want to know more? pls get in touch!