Last time, I wrote about Frugal Education. With the pressures on education, it is an obvious choice for applying a new approach that brings benefits to more people while cutting costs. But what other areas are top prospects for frugal innovation approaches? Here are some questions I would ask to qualify the candidates:
- Is the conventional approach to meeting the challenge expensive or rationed?
- Is the challenge complex, but divisible or able to be simplified? That is, can you isolate specific benefits sought and specific liabilities that might be avoided with a solution?
- Are benefits and avoidance of liabilities widely needed or desired across the population (especially among the poor)?
- By isolating the portions of the solution, is it possible to come up with alternative ways of achieving these partial results?
- Can any of the partial solutions imagined ride Moore’s Law (or other expected trends) to lower costs and wider availability?
- Are their ways to broaden availability and lower costs to partial solutions by including the participation of (local) volunteers or (local) low-cost labor?
- Can low-cost resources (especially local and “waste” materials) be substituted for current resources?
Note: Local in some instances may be “available as readily as local.” For instance, if virtual participation makes sense, “local” can be anywhere.
These questions can provide guidance, and they also make it easy to identify efforts in malaria control, energy production, and healthcare that can be used as models. Often, these demonstrate the value of bringing a systems view to leverage frugal innovation more effectively (and that will be the subject of a future entry).
Education scores pretty well across these questions. Full employment would also seem to be a good candidate, but there are disturbing elements to the example.
Today, it is expensive and time-consuming to provide most labor. [Conventional approach expensive.] An exception in the U.S. is day labor, where men congregate in known spots and are picked up at the beginning of the day to do unskilled work. [Employment approach simplified.] This informal approach is no frills – the laborers do not get fringe benefits. They usually get paid in cash (often below minimum wage), and neither the employers nor the employees pay any taxes. [Benefits isolated. And the benefit provided is widely needed and desired.] Some benefits usually provided through employment are provided through the government. [Healthcare via emergency rooms in hospitals. Nutrition via food stamps or food pantries, etc.]
Day labor reaches the poor. In fact, it is almost exclusively for the poor. It is a black market that provides a thriving alternative to the conventional employment approach. It rides the cost-lowering trend of immigration into the United States, mostly from Latin America in my region. Participation is very localized. Resources are less of a factor here since we are talking about labor.
Within this system, there are efficiencies through substitutions and localization that are hard to deny. This labor market adjusts to optimal pricing in real-time, and it is unregulated, meaning the costs of bureaucracy, monitoring and enforcement are avoided. Benefits flow to the poor (who can participate here and not in other employment systems) and to the employers (who get labor at a much reduced price).
The problem with this sort of frugal approach is some of the costs are externalized to society as a whole. Effectively, the government (and charities) supplements the income the day laborers receive by providing free services. And, of course, many of the costs avoided by the employers effectively are taken up by the society at large.
This is not a perfect example, but it provides answers and raises questions that may be useful in designing a frugal solution to unemployment. Looking at what is happening away from control, planning, and even legal restrictions can extend thinking and point the way to new ways to meet pressing challenges.