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Frugal Innovation in the Age of Access

July 6, 2010

“Nothing is more dangerous than a dogmatic worldview – nothing more constraining, more blinding to innovation, more destructive of openness to novelty” – Stephen Jay Gould

The Economist ran an interesting piece a couple of months ago on the charms of frugal innovation. In essence, it refers to the practice of starting with the needs of poor consumers (and those in the developing world) and working backward towards a solution. It’s often used with reference to technology, including wireless phones, but also applies to other goods as well. As The Economist noted, it’s more than about just costs; it also includes simplification of use and durability. And, with respect to the example of wireless phones, it’s a needed approach, given that there are a couple of billion in use, with the numbers continuing to grow.

But, in this age of globalization, could frugal innovation be an open, non-dogmatic path forward for sustainability? The rationale why is simple. To date, in sustainability we tend to focus upon scarcity – that natural resources are scarce; therefore, we need to conserve, to do without – that those “without” will inevitably continue to be “without,” while those “with” must either give it up or cut back significantly. In the developed world, this resonates with some for good reason, just like dieting does for those that are overweight. The developed world uses more energy per capita, by far, than the developing, and has a higher standard of living. But, in the developing world, they are not “overweight.” They are trying to raise their standard of living, and desire some of the rewards and benefits that come with that higher standard. Asking them to go on a severe, long-term “diet” – to continue to do without – unfairly (to their mind) constrains them and is fraught with danger and risk, and, ultimately, doomed to fail.

Clearly, frugal innovation would have to incorporate additional components for design. It would need to include not only cost, operational simplicity, and durability, but also operational efficiency, environmental impact and disposal. And, this would have to be applied in all areas, not just consumer goods, but those products and services that provide the infrastructure and energy for those consumer goods, as well.

Naturally, it’s a complex issue, but then, nature is complex. Easy answers won’t necessarily succeed.  Scarcity thinking will likely result in scarce positive results. Use nature as an example. If you erect barriers to water, it seeks openings; it finds the easiest paths to flow. Erecting barriers on economic improvement likewise won’t necessarily stop existing technological adoption and widespread use in the developing world, but it could result in a lack of innovation for new technologies. It’s the difference between drowning with today’s solutions, rather than sailing with tomorrow’s.

We have a site that deals with some of these issues – Access. You can find it at And, be sure to explore the section on Sustainable Access.

And, if interested in The Economist article, click here.

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