Scaling-up the impact of Nature-based Solutions: RECONECT demonstrates and implements impact at scale

Credit: © Shutterstock / Bruijn

Authors: Diana Dushkova and Christian Kuhlicke, Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research — UFZ

How can social and technical innovations become more widely adopted and lead to a transformative impact beyond the immediate context in which they have been developed? What are the strategic steps needed and which specific measures and actions can be taken to support the use of Nature-based Solutions (NBS) at different scales in the context of hydro-meteorological risk reduction, but also climate change adaption, urban development, land planning or other societal challenges?

In order to answer these questions, RECONECT project partners adopt the approach that scaling impacts of NBS interventions need to not just reach groups of stakeholders within the environmental sector but also — and more importantly — lead to a wider transformative change. These transformations occur in the way that countries design, plan, and monitor the management of their water resources and the essential ecosystems services unpinning the quantity, quality and timing of the resource itself.

A large number of pilot demonstration projects have been set up in recent years aiming to explore options and ways to initiate transformative processes towards more sustainable development at the river basin level. However, the key challenge remains in how to upscale these solutions and ensure that they become mainstreamed in policy and practice, adapted to the local context as well as addressed to the local needs/challenges.

What is RECONECT’s scaling strategy and what difference it makes to the other scaling strategies out there?

The European Commission underlines a growing need for innovative NBS and for development in deploying and scaling existing efforts. Thus, the scaling strategy developed by RECONECT is based on different perspectives from research, policy and practice engaged in NBS. It will enable to evaluate conditions and options for the successful scaling of NBS for hydro-meteorological risk reduction throughout Europe and internationally.

The RECONECT strategic approach is based on the understanding that scaling rarely occurs automatically as is often assumed. It requires focused attention, strategic locally adapted planning and management as well as resource allocation. The approach promotes the idea that a focus on scaling is required when assessing needs and priorities as well as in designing pilot interventions. The RECONECT team started by thinking systematically — what does impact mean and what actions are needed in the project to make transformation happen.

For many projects, supporting decision-makers and practitioners who are engaged in the project activities is one concrete way of building the foundations for change. RECONECT also functions this way through a network of sites which both demonstrate, evaluate and monitor NBS implementation and by doing so offering opportunities for mutual learning.

The exchange between sites enables a continued dialogue on best practice — what works and what doesn’t work. It also links stakeholders into a participatory network of NBS in practice, building a community of common understanding, shared ownership, interest and vision. Questionnaire surveys and semi-structured interviews with stakeholders prior the NBS intervention, during the project cycle and towards the end of the project will uncover shared experiences of how sites change over time, how people’s perceptions evolve and what are the entry points and drivers for further NBS investments and interventions.

To scale impact beyond the project sites, RECONECT has developed a comprehensive and systematic strategy that builds upon many different activities. This includes more established modes of increasing the awareness about NbS through communication activities, networking activities as well as empowering “active advocates” for the benefits of NbS in comparison to more established technical solutions to reduce risk from flooding or storm surges.

It is a work in progress and involves continuous learning and exchange. While a variety of different terms have been introduced to the discussion, the terminology proposed by Moore et al. (2015) is used in RECONECT and remains particularly relevant in the project context. It conveys some of the key messages without requiring a great depth of theoretical background knowledge on scaling processes.

What are the five types of scaling?

The strategy forms around five main types of scaling: scaling deep, scaling out, scaling down, scaling up and cross-cutting scaling. Reflecting the great diversity of partners involved in RECONECT as well as the diversity of audiences with a potential interest in the outputs of RECONECT, simple terminology that grasps some of the key activities associated with different types of scaling is crucial.

At the heart of RECONECT is the joint effort to provide robust evidence of the benefits and co-benefits of NBS and how they can be achieved through an inclusive social innovation approach and contribute to the establishment of a European reference framework. In order to achieve a high impact, four different kinds of scaling are pursued which includes: activities aiming at changing the cultural roots of how hydro-meteorological risks are managed (scaling deep), increasing stakeholders awareness of the key outputs of RECONECT (scaling out), changing existing laws and regulations so they more effectively enforce the uptake of NBS (scaling up) and, finally, analysing both the institutional drivers and barriers of the uptake of NBS (scaling down). In this sense, scaling cuts across almost all activities under in the project (cross-cutting scaling).

What lessons has RECONECT learned so far on scaling?

Lesson 1: RECONECT is a project with a wide range of institutions and partners involved and with many activities that run in parallel. But as it is constantly evolving, this complexity brings with it a great deal of freedom and potential to innovate. A perfect foundation for exploring how to scale NBS in practice — a building block of the project’s Theory of Change.

Lesson 2: Deliberately using the more general term “scaling” in order to demarcate a process that aims at amplifying the impact of an initiative. Scaling is thus an activity that is concerned with how small scale or local innovations can gain impact so that these innovations can expand across (higher levels of) scales.

Lesson 3: Scaling is a complex task that builds, ideally, upon a variety of activities. The scaling strategy outlined by RECONECT therefore builds upon already established activities and links them systematically through an overarching strategy. This includes both strengthening collaboration, exchange and mutual learning within the project, but also cooperation and learning between projects as well as standardisation and replication beyond the immediate context of the project. Reflecting this great diversity, scaling is adopted as a cross-cutting activity that builds upon, and provides an overarching structure framework.

Lesson 4: Scaling is an activity that requires adaptation and reflexivity. The scaling strategy sketched out here needs to be accessible to all project partners (and the wider community of practice), but it also needs to be revised and updated as the project continues to evolve. To take a stepwise approach and start initiating scaling processes that can be initiated and organised first within the project and then only in a next step, setting up scaling processes that go beyond the immediate context of the project.

Lesson 5: Scaling is already a widely shared practise of Demonstrators as well as Collaborators. They are strategic about positioning and promoting the relevance of NBS through their networks and policy-contacts, based on their own experiences and insights. In this sense, they have already become engaged in scaling and become advocates for NBS and thus agents of transformative change.

In a next step, RECONECT distributes a survey on scaling needs and activities. This survey will be distributed among a wider group of stakeholders interested or involved in the realisation of NBS. Its aim is, among others, to identify key barriers to and factors for the successful implementation of NBS projects, to learn how to co-create, co-design and co-develop NBS, which planning tools and programs are relevant. We will also try to better understand the skills and needs of actors interested in the realisation of NBS to be able to provide more tailored solutions through the RECONECT project.


Moore, M.-L., Riddel, D., Vocisano, D. (2015) Scaling out, scaling up, scaling deep: Advancing systemic social innovation and the learning processes to support it. The Journal of Corporate Citizenship 58, 67–84.



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The RECONECT project demonstrates the effectiveness of Nature-Based Solutions for hydro-meteorological risk reduction in rural and natural areas