Scale. No, not the instrument for weighing or the outer skin of a fish. According to WFP Innovator and Programme Lead Samuel Ng, "Scale", in WFP Innovation Accelerator terminology, can best be defined as how a project has grown sustainably over time. Time here is the operative word. It takes time to scale, and it is important consider the steps one must follow to get there, as we've outlined with our Design, Fail and Repeat posts previously.
Sam has a lot of experience with all of the above innovation terminology, but we thought SCALE would be the best for him to tackle. He founded design and technology startups at the age of 25, which is still running today. To walk away from something you created while it's still ongoing, only to look back and see that it's turned out even better than you could have anticipated, and is actually thriving, is a great feeling, he says. And ideally, that's what we should all want from our humanitarian careers and our work with WFP specifically: that we can leave a situation - whether a CO, division, unit or project - better off than how we found it.
The user experience company Sam founded in New Zealand and Australia is a consultancy that aims to make use of technology in a way that "normal human beings can relate to". They went on to create software tools, as well, which are now used globally.
But what's the link to humanitarianism? Sam had a chance to step outside of his businesses at one point, and as he left them behind, decided to take the opportunity to train for a marathon. Listening to audiobooks as he ran, he was particularly struck by one, Not for Sale, which opened his eyes to the worldwide crisis of human trafficking. Shortly thereafter, he received an invitation to volunteer at an interagency UN workshop in Bangkok, which dealt with addressing this problem.
As a result of that workshop, Sam ended up establishing a charity connecting law firms and corporates in Hong Kong, looking at how they might use the influence of powerful business leaders to positively affect the problem of labour trafficking in Asia. While there, Sam actually met someone featured in the book which inspired him, Pierre Tami, who was running an anti-trafficking NGO providing people with a platform for dignity and opportunities to integrate into society. As a result of that meeting, Sam worked with Pierre to build an impact investment fund, creating new capital and deeper interconnections on this important issue.
Remaining in the southeast Asia region, Sam was recruited to join a USAID funded innovation project in Cambodia, which is now called "Development Innovations". He moved with his family and worked on that for a couple of years, before returning to New Zealand for business reasons. While there, he thought about the best way to marry his entrepreneurial background with those recent years of humanitarian work, and soon ended up at the WFP Innovation Accelerator!
Since January 2017, Sam has been leading the scale up and Emerging Technologies portfolio here in Munich, and on arrival dove right into the Building Blocks project, which was looking to scale at the time (having gone through an Innovation bootcamp in late 2016). They had just started a Proof of Concept in the Sindh Province of Pakistan, working with 100 beneficiaries to confirm basic assumptions around the capabilities of blockchain in authenticating and registering transactions. Taking lessons learned from Pakistan, WFP then built and implemented a more robust blockchain system in two Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, which has by now "scaled" to benefit 106,000 people.
The question remains: as an early-stage innovation goes through the phases of design, failure, and repeating the process: what role does timing play? When is it the right moment to even think about scaling? Sam emphasizes that it is, quite simply, important to build the potential of scale into your model from the beginning. Equally important, self-awareness is essential; knowing what you are good at doing and what other people are good at doing, and recognizing that we all need to seek partners at some stage. In the Innovation and tech spheres, we often celebrate the “lone entrepreneur”, that heroic figure who leads a startup of a few people in a garage to a company with millions of users. It's crucial to understand, however, successful lone entrepreneurs are rare. More likely, successful ventures rely on an army of experts, advisors, critical team members and outside partners, without whom scaling would never be possible.
In WFP terms, once you test your idea and show that it can work, you will always need to employ additional help, whether in the form of other units, divisions, COs, or outside expertise from the private sector. The good news is, the Innovation Accelerator here in Munich are ready and able to help you with all of that. So no matter what stage you are at in the process, don't be afraid to apply, keeping that big picture and the ultimate goal of helping people in mind! As each of us continues along different paths of on our own humanitarian career marathon, it's who we meet along the way that can really help get us over the finish line.
The Accelerator is here to run that race with you! Could the next big idea be yours?