Reconsidering the Concept of Scale in Market Systems Development




January 2016


Ben Fowler

Tim Sparkman

Mike Field

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About the Publication 

Economic development programs are increasingly taking a systems approach. This paper suggests that the shift to a systemic perspective calls into question the utility of using scale as a key measure of project success, at least in its current usage. While understanding a project’s outreach still has a place, it has been traditionally overused as the primary means of assessing a project’s impact; a use which creates perverse incentives for projects trying to take a systemic approach. This paper supports this argument by both 1) assessing the relevance and utility of redefining scale using systems thinking, and 2) assessing the implications of shifting the definition of scale to create a more useful concept for systems program design and measure of program impact. Lastly, the paper briefly explores the implications of a revised view of scale for assessing attribution, given the complex dynamics of socio-economic systems.

From a systems perspective, any statement of scale should be contextual and character-specific. That is, scale should be redefined to include a measure of the spread of a behavior or benefit across a specific population (e.g., X behavior adopted by, or Y benefit enjoyed by, Z percentage of people in a specific market system); and it should consider the process by which the spread was effected (e.g., a self-sustained spread across a network of relationships, beyond what was directly induced by a project). The character of how scale was reached is important given its impact on the likely sustainability of the change, and thus whether it is systemic in nature. While this paper argues for change, its focus is on stimulating discussion rather than proposing specific guidance on how to apply a redefined understanding of scale.


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