Frugal innovation: From East to West and back again

Growing up in Pondicherry in South India, Navi Radjou observed that Asians have an in-built creativity when it comes to conserving resources. “Not only in India,” he told Think Business from his office in Palo Alto, California, “but throughout Asia, people instinctively avoid wasting resources. Street vendors reuse yesterday’s newspaper to package up snacks. People repurpose their old soda bottles for storing water.”

Jugaad
Hindi word meaning an innovative fix; an improvised solution born from ingenuity and cleverness; resourceful

To Radjou, these are all examples of frugality at work: but perhaps more importantly, they reveal innovation in everyday life. In Radjou’s bestselling book, Jugaad Innovation, he describes how powerful frugal creativity can be.

In India, everybody recognises the word “Jugaad”: it refers to a quick, ingenious way of solving a problem. “At a time when markets are shrinking and competition is so great, this Asian approach to problem solving can be a powerful tool for individuals, companies and governments,” says Radjou.

‘Something to be celebrated’

The concept of Jugaad has also taken hold in the West. “In the midst of recession people are coming back to a frugal way of life and they are realising that they can actually be very creative with very few resources,” Radjou says.

nadjou280He points to the growth of the hands-on “Maker Movement” in the US and Europe. “Now, being frugal and resourceful is not something to be ashamed of. It is something to be celebrated,” says Radjou.

Large companies, such as Ford and GE, have noticed how effective this kind of approach can be, he adds. They are using the principles of Jugaad to re-engineer their research and development systems. One method to do this is to set up unstructured spaces for their employees to find creative ways to solve problems.

“This is not about throwing money at a problem. In fact, it is the opposite. It is about seeing what happens when you give people the space and freedom to be creative with very few resources.”

In Radjou’s experience, companies that have adopted this method have reduced their research and development spending while simultaneously increasing their patent output.

Time to return

He argues that it is time for Jugaad – a quintessentially Asian idea – to return to Asia. Frugal innovation is already part of the fabric of Asian culture and Radjou believes that Asian companies and governments can harness its power to encourage even more creativity.

Asians have always had a different approach to innovation

Navi Radjou,
co-author, Jugaad Innovation

He points to ways Jugaad thinking has already been very successful in Singapore. “Take the hawker centre,” says Radjou. “It started as a frugal concept: cheap street food in makeshift, roadside stalls. The Singaporean government decided to scale up the hawker model and it has been a huge success.”

So how can institutions in Singapore replicate this approach? Radjou says that the key is not to micro-manage the innovation process.

To date, he says, Singapore has had a lot of success because of its regimented systems. Now though Singaporean organisations “will have to learn to let people innovate in a less structured environment”.

It is tempting for organisations to show their support for entrepreneurship and creativity by providing funding for projects. If anything, Radjou says, offering funding is the opposite of the Jugaad approach: “Jugaad is all about encouraging people to find solutions with fewer resources.”

The Jugaad infrastructure

book280Rather than providing money to support individual projects, he suggests that Singaporean organisations set up what he calls a “Jugaad infrastructure”. By this, he means setting up creative spaces where people can be free to experiment with new ideas and build new things. NUS has already taken a step in this direction by setting up the Engineering Design and Innovation Centre. Radjou says that setting up more sites like this would be a good way to create a more innovative culture, particularly as manufacturing jobs decline in Singapore.

“One idea is for Singaporeans to repurpose ageing factories and manufacturing sites to create little innovation hubs.”

Radjou believes that frugal innovation could revolutionise Singapore’s core industries. “It could lead to finding cheaper and more efficient ways to manufacture medical devices. It could lead to better energy management or water purification systems,” says Radjou.

It could also be a great way to find public service solutions. For instance, rather than paying a research and development company to find mobility solutions for an aging population, why not take a bottom up approach and encourage creative people to problem solve in a more ad-hoc setting. “This way, you’ll create cheaper solutions and perhaps more importantly, flexible solutions. The top down one-size-fits-all approach is not very helpful.”

Necessity is the mother of invention, the old saying goes. In Asia, this is not so much an adage as a way of life. And in a post-financial crisis world, governments and organisations are recognising the wisdom of frugality. Everybody is clamouring for cheaper solutions: more fuel efficient cars, cheaper healthcare, smaller and less expensive computers. Radjou believes that Jugaad, which is part of the Asian DNA, is an important tool in the new world economy.

“Asians have always had a different approach to innovation,” he says. “Asians have good reason to be proud of it, because the rest of the world is trying to figure out how it works and how they can do it too.”

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