How to do more with less – frugal innovation


2009 Kenya. We might see a man pushing a cart full of produce on his way to the market looking at his mobile phone – one of the old ones with buttons.

The chances are that he was checking the forward price of the items in his cart and agreeing transactions as he pushed, so that once he arrived at the market all he had to do was deliver the items, get the money and complete the deal.

Developing regions always have two problems – there are too many needs and there aren’t enough resources.

They have had to innovate with scarce resources – something now called frugal innovation.

Take keeping food fresh, for example.

In the West, a fridge is a as much a part of a house as the walls or roof.

Our lifestyles are built around going to supermarkets, getting food and keeping it in fridges or freezers.

If the power went off for a couple of days or a week we wouldn’t know what to do – all that food would spoil and the system would break down.

Mansukh Prajapati from India came up with a fridge made from clay that works using evaporative cooling.

Food can be kept fresh for a few days and it works without electricity so can be used anywhere.

Ingenious solutions can be high-tech or low-tech – the key is finding opportunities and coming up with creative ideas and approaches.

And some problems can be quite complicated.

Take energy consumption, for example.

In 1885 William Jevons noticed that when technology made coal usage more efficient, the amount of coal being used increased dramatically.

Appliances today are much more efficient in the way they use electricity but as we move to driving more electric cars, the total amount of power we need is going to increase.

Clearly we’ll use less fossil fuel as a result – but pour more chemicals into batteries that last three years and then have to be thrown away or recycled.

And we don’t really know if that will be good overall in the long run or not.

A simple solution would be to get people walking and cycling more.

But that requires fundamentally changing the way we work and live our lives – and while we are taking steps in that direction there is still a long way to go.

Frugal innovation also relies on the principle of leverage.

Why reinvent things when you can use what is already out there?

The GNU/Linux system has “free as in freedom” software that allows people who could never afford commercial software to access, learn and use computing tools.

Why build a new proprietary application when we already have existing capability out there – why not build on that instead?

Economies based on consumption prosper – encouraging people to want and spend and buy has unleashed innovation on a vast scale – benefitting people with the ability to pay.

Frugal innovation may be a way to benefit everyone else.

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