How to less with more – lessons in frugal innovation.

by | Oct 19, 2015

The temptation during problem-solving is to go big: throw a fortune at research and insight; take the whole team to New York during ideation and then hire Banksy himself to present the concept as a stencil. OK, so I’m exaggerating, but you get the idea. We’re rarely taught to go under-budget, and do things that cost beans.

But according to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Christian Science Monitor, ‘frugal innovation’ has become a big thing in the global development world, where it is a concept that is largely borne out of necessity. The developing world, as they point out, simply can’t throw huge amounts of money and resources at looking at ways to engage in technological development.

The idea behind frugal innovation is that all ideas should be anchored to the concept’s four cornerstones: accessibility, sustainability, affordability and quality. Not surprisingly, one of the go-to routes for gathering ideas is crowdsourcing. It’s interesting to see how we can apply lessons from the developing world back to innovation in developed economies and established countries.

I really liked his approach, and every now and then I do pause to ask: do I really need all of the things that I think I need in order to get the job done? That’s right at the heart of frugal innovation. How might it benefit your own thinking?

At work, people typically settle into a way of creative thinking that they know bears fruit. It’s usually been arrived at by a combination of trial and error, adaptation, some external influences and so on. And while the process might alter a little for each creative problem people put their heads to, trends and themes will likely emerge each time. As a result, it’s possible that ideas start to get stuck in a certain groove.

While it might seem counter-intuitive, a client suddenly cutting their budget by 90 per cent would probably not end up with ideas that were 90 per cent worse. What if, in fact, that stripped of the usual tools, bells and whistles you usually relied on, the ideas you came up with were somehow improved? One thing they would almost certainly be would be different.

What could frugal innovation mean for you?

The next time you kick off a round of problem solving, try knocking a zero off your budget – just for 20 minutes – and see where it takes you. It might be far less restricting than you think. How could you engage the customer for a fraction of the amount you were planning to spend?

For my money, Google came up with one of the best examples of the past few years when they released Google Cardboard – for around $20 a way for people to try virtual reality using their own smartphone via a DIY cardboard headset. Its most obvious rival, the long-awaited Oculus Rift, still won’t be out until next year.

Out in the real world, though, a brilliant example is probably the Jaipur Leg: a low-cost prosthetic that incorporates adapted irrigation piping into the design to keep costs low. It is made by a non-profit called Jaipur Foot, which now fits around 25,000 artificial limbs a year at a price that is less than one per cent of what you’d typically pay in the West. Sure, you’d probably rather have the $10,000 option, but their version does what it’s supposed to do – and it’s a million times better than nothing. Read more about frugal innovation here.

In his book on the subject, writer Navi Radjou explains the principles in how to do more with less:

  1. Keep it simple
  2. Don’t reinvent the wheel
  3. Think and act horizontally

He gave a great TED talk on the subject here:

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