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The challenge of scaling

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It is important to think about scale from the beginning. Scaling solutions developed in academia to achieve global impact is nontrivial in any field, and it’s particularly so for sustainability issues. Not all solutions that work at the academic level will scale up to have substantive, positive impact on a large fraction of humanity and our planet, due to a variety of downstream risks and barriers, often unforeseen. While these challenges require multiple shots on goal, false positives—mistaken impressions that a solution is scalable—are often both time-consuming and expensive. And time matters immensely, especially in the climate space. Fundamental understanding and early assessment of these risks and barriers are key to developing strategies to filter out ideas or innovate approaches to overcome the barriers, which is essential to accelerating the
scale-up of solutions.

The risks and barriers are different when scaling technology versus enacting policy solutions. Barriers to technology commercialization include: identifying pathways for cost reduction to make breakthrough technologies economically compelling; de-risking scale-up via pilot demonstrations to make technologies bankable; access to low-cost, long-term financing; risks of supply chains, manufacturing ecosystems, and adequate infrastructure; policy barriers for rapid market formation and adoption; and the reality that government policy is often a key mechanism for creation of sustainable business models.

The challenges to enacting effective public policies are different and often context-specific. The successful deployment of scientific knowledge and technology to address environmental and energy problems requires careful design of regulatory and financial incentives, culturally-relevant engagement that centers affected communities, and the buy-in of relevant policy leaders. Legal, policy, and financial innovations cannot be developed in a vacuum and exported to decision-makers; policy development is a two-way street that requires iterative interaction, co-creation, and long-term engagement to support effective implementation. From the academic side, this constructive interaction requires the sustained involvement of policy professionals or practitioners with external experience, appropriate networks, and an understanding of the capabilities and interest of Stanford faculty. Stanford should serve as a place where stakeholders resolve issues through dialogue, creating agreements and standards that could form the foundation for domestic and international policies.

An additional challenge is that of creating nonprofit organizations that succeed outside the university. While pathways exist for licensing technology or launching companies—pathways that in many ways Stanford helped develop—there is no similar roadmap for how to launch a nonprofit when needed to catalyze scalability of sustainability solutions. This challenge of generating a roadmap for graduating nonprofits is both a hurdle for scaling and also an opportunity for Stanford to create a model others can follow.