ND Alum Dustin Mix holds a bachelor’s and dual Master’s Degrees from the Civil Engineering and ESTEEM Programs at the University of Notre Dame. He is now located in Léogâne, Haiti, working as the In-Country Director for Engineering2Empower (E2E), a social venture that he helped to found while in graduate school at Notre Dame. Their focus, as you’ll read below, is on launching a new housing model for the thousands of people still left without viable permanent shelter options in post-earthquake Haiti.
After four years of working with the group I helped to found, Engineering2Empower (E2E), on the problem of housing in Haiti, I still haven’t been able to get my head around the notion of “scalability”. Sure, I get it on an academic level, meaning can your idea be brought to more than just you, your family and friends, or even your immediate network. Does it have potential to reach the masses?
The term, however, becomes much more complicated when you start talking specifics. In every pitch I’ve ever done, I’ve been asked the questions, “Is this scalable?”, “How do you reach scale?”, and “What are the barriers to scale?” I’ve even been flat-out told, “This idea isn’t scalable.” Every time someone mentions this term, I get a little anxious because I still haven’t figured out exactly how they are evaluating it. Scale is easy to evaluate once you’re there, but how can you have any notion, while in the thick of it, whether an idea can achieve it or not.
The economic questions are typically easy to address (or at least understand). Can your margins cover your operating costs, and how does that change as the numbers increase? Can you achieve economies of scale by producing more than a few? These are all pretty straightforward. But the questions of what business models are scalable, when is scale important, and what is a viable timeline to pursue aren’t so clear.
I guess my real frustration with the topic comes from the fact that I work in the world of social entrepreneurship. When you are not only pursuing profit but have an equally important goal of delivering a social good (I’d also argue a dependence on delivering that social good), questions of scale become much more complicated. It no longer just becomes about economies of scale, but also about how scale, and the pursuit of it, affects your social mission.
Much in the same way that it can be difficult to quantify impact, it can be difficult to model scalability when we are talking about social dynamics, human behavior, and inherently deeply rooted social issues. I’ve seen the story, time and again, about a social venture pursuing scale in the classic business sense, only to find unintended consequences on the social good they set out to deliver. The classic example in housing is the export of US-style housing developments into developing countries where the communities aren’t equipped to deal with the isolation, transportation issues, and cultural norms that a suburban development brings with it. (Two good examples are here and here.)
But for some reason, this is how everyone envisions housing scale. For our project, we see scale much differently. We passionately believe that we cannot even talk about scale until we put in the systems necessary to bring about growth within the local housing sector. When this can be achieved, then demand from the customers, through their local contractors, banks, and developers, will shape what scale looks like in housing in Haiti.
I think, like all entrepreneurs, I will continue to struggle with the idea of scale until we reach it. However, until then, E2E is going to maintain the claim that we can’t talk about number of homes as a metric of scalability until we create the local, sustainable, delivery mechanisms necessary to build them. Pilot programs and co-innovation with Haitian homeowners, contractors, and banks is where we need to start, one step at a time. Instead of worrying about reaching scale, we are going to remain committed to building the environment necessary to even discuss it.
And, at the end of the day, there are positive examples of it being done in housing. This group in Texas has maintained a focus on the delivery of housing to low-income immigrants, ensuring they avoid the problems seen in other developments. By making that their focus, they are starting to find ways to achieve the scale that everyone talks about. Another group in Chile has shaken up public housing by putting it on high-value urban land, instead of isolated outlying regions of cities. This ensures that the homes hold (and even increase) their value, but are also designed with the needs of low-income residents in mind.
I believe that scale is important because I believe that impact is important. But we must focus on building the latter, before we can focus on achieving the former.
We have launched a crowdfunding campaign this week to help continue to prove our model and build capacity. We have plans to build five homes in 2015, complete with a pilot financing program, in an attempt to prove that there are ways to finance safe and affordable homes in places like Haiti. We have had a great response to date, but want to keep up the momentum.
Check out our story at http://igg.me/at/e2e and consider being part of E2E’s work today!
Cover photo (featured image) from Stanford Social Innovation Review on “closing the pioneer gap“.