Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” This was the mantra I grew up with. Both my parents weathered the Great Depression, and I grew up in a thrifty household. So the phrase “frugal innovation” caught my attention when I read a story about India’s Husk Power Systems. Using a waste product (rice husks), engineers created a reliable, eco-friendly system that provides electricity at very little cost. (As follow-on benefits, it provides employment, discount supply (for light bulbs, and then soap, biscuits and more), up-to-date payment (smart cards!), longer shop hours, longer study hours for children, powered irrigation, a drop in burglaries and snake bites – and profits for the company.
The article defines frugal innovation as “radically simplifying things to serve the needs of poor customers who would otherwise be excluded from basic market services due to their limited ability to pay.” An Economist article connects frugal innovation with jugaad, an Indian tradition of making due with what you have and never giving up.
That article provides examples from a handheld electrocariogram to using mobile phones to connect TVs to the Internet. (One of my favorite stories on frugal innovation is about adapting a technique used in embroidering saris to creating retina testing devices at 2% the going rate.)
I derived these principles from the articles I read:
- Simplify – Strip it down to reduce cost, cut down on maintenance and enable the use of unskilled labor.
- Use what’s local – In some areas, it is more efficient to have someone turning a crank than it is to automate. Using the waste at hand, as Ecovative does, reduces transportation costs, provides local employment and recycles.
- Adapt skills, techniques and approaches creatively.
- Instead of getting enraptured by high tech, look to the minimum technology that is needed to serve the customer.
- Make the poor your market – and don’t stop development until you find a way to price within their means.
There’s more in the articles I’ve cited, but I want to use this space to make two more points. First, scarcity extends beyond developing nations. Solutions to the cost of government and pressures on the working class worldwide may be found in frugal innovation approaches. For too long, “go big or go home” seems to have been the slogan of corporations and businesses, but going small has its place, too. And, as the stories I found indicate, there is no need to lose quality if enough creativity and focus come into play.
Second, it is difficult to imagine sustainable development unless people at all levels of society take advantage of frugal innovation where it makes sense. The frugal approach takes fewer resources and creates less damage to our environment. Even those who can afford to be wasteful have the opportunity to choose instead to be kind to the planet.