Fernando Fischmann

Innovation Within Reach

26 August, 2014 / Articles

In a world with microchip implants, car-to-car communication, and talk of drone delivery services, it can seem as if innovation is becoming increasingly high-tech. But what about the world’s poorest, for whom such gadgets are out of reach? What types of innovation would be most beneficial for them?

These questions are the driving force behind efforts in “frugal innovation” — designing products specifically to meet the needs of the world’s poorest people. The concept challenges innovators to do more with less. In general, the creators of frugal innovations strive for them to be affordable, sustainable, lightweight and rugged. Wherever possible, they should be made locally with renewable materials. Perhaps most important, they should be developed with the end user in mind, taking into consideration things like power outages in her village, the distance she must walk to seek medical assistance and religious customs she considers sacred.

The idea of frugal innovation isn’t new. The colloquial Hindi term “jugaad” has long been used in India to refer to creative and low-tech fixes, often developed with meager resources. Within academic literature, the economist E. F. Schumacher articulated the need in 1974 for “intermediate technologies” that were small-scale, decentralized and energy-efficient.

Several Fixes columns have explored individual frugal innovations: an eye hospital based in southern India that found a way to conduct low-cost surgeries; a doctor in the city of Jaipur who invented a low-cost prosthetic limb for people who would have otherwise remained limbless and dependent on others; a hospital in Bogota that used research on the incubator-like benefits of skin-to-skin contact between mothers and premature infants to foster healthy development without costly incubation units.

Of course, not every frugal innovation is successful. For every cost-effective eye surgery, there are dozens of flailing socially conscious enterprises. So what does it take for an inexpensive, seemingly rudimentary innovation to take hold and potentially improve the lives of millions of people? What do successful frugal innovations have in common?




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