The Value of Frugality

My formal introduction to frugal innovation or — a term used in Indian parlance — started several years back when I began my first job as a user researcher for a think tank in Chennai, India.

My first few years in the development sector involved studying wood-fired cookstoves and trying to understand the barriers to adoption for improved stoves — smokeless stoves with better combustion. I started looking for folks who were already doing simple Jugaad with their cookstoves. Over a period of time, all the small instances of this that I saw metamorphosed into an idea which addressed some of the negative impacts of using wood-fired stoves, without demanding the users to change their practices.

World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that exposure to smoke from the simple act of cooking causes 4.3 million premature deaths per year

My quest to convert the idea into a prototype began in a busy welding shop tucked in one of the busy streets of Chennai, India. In 2012, there were no open makerspaces or labs where I could make a prototype, so my only option was the welding shop. I spent 10 minutes explaining what I wanted, followed by a 5 minute discussion on the suitable materials, and another 10 minutes to make it. In less than 30 minutes, I had the prototype in my hand ready to be deployed for testing. In spite of the positive reviews from my user testing, I couldn’t continue working on the prototype due to funding constraints — but this didn’t stop my interest in Jugaad.

Raju from the welding shop making a 2x2 metal grate which was inserted in the traditional cookstoves to improve stove efficiency.
Traditional stoves are often filled with a lot of ash and adding too many fire wood on top of it reduces air flow underneath the woods which results in smoke. Using metal crates creates a space between the wood and the floor of the stove enabling more air flow and thereby improves stove efficiency.

Fast forward five years, and I am now in Bangalore surrounded by modern incubators and makerspaces, where one can find resources on par with some of the best labs in the west. On the other hand, there remain the local welders, carpenters, tailors and countless other traditional craftsmen with specific skills — good at making and fixing things. Both these contexts present equally good opportunities to solve problems — large and small — all within one’s own reach.

In the last five years, opportunities for people who want to build or fix things have improved considerably, and many are making use of it. Some of these efforts — such as , a GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) based controller, which allows the farmer to control an irrigation pump motor from his mobile or landline within the comforts of his home — started as a simple Jugaad hack, and has since transformed into a great product that is now commercially successful.

But Jugaad needn’t be overly technical or complex to be effective, and to solve for pressing challenges, and also as a practice to living sustainably. I was inspired by many frugal innovation stories, most notably the developed by Mohammad Saidullah, and the making machine by Arunachalam Muruganantham. Whilst there are examples of frugal innovation in contexts around the world, these examples are uniquely Indian solutions to challenges emerging from unique contexts.

The Jugaad approach is an incredibly valuable counterpoint to some of the world’s most pressing challenges, many of which manifest in India at a scale far greater than is experienced in other contexts. It harnesses the power of oft-overlooked population segments — at the so-called “base of the pyramid” — who lack the financial capacity to avail “first world” solutions, but have the ingenuity to repurpose and reuse materials to create new solutions.

One of the many makerspaces in Bengaluru teaching participants on how to use woodworking tools. Image source: The Workshop

In the medical field, one of the most famous examples of Jugaad is the so-called , which uses local, low-cost materials to provide much-needed prostheses at a fraction of the cost of western alternatives (around USD 40 vs. USD 5,000). In commerce, the is a distinctly Desi response to market opportunities: harnessing the power and efficiency of bicycles to create new delivery systems and mobile commercial hubs. In thinking about toys and games, one can find all manner of seeming refuse being upcycled to provide children entertainment. Examples of Jugaad range from ingenious to , and are so widespread in India that it’s nearly impossible to go a day without seeing some hacked item being utilized.

There are many success stories proving to the mainstream market that Jugaad can scale, and meet all the quality standards, so long as the innovators can get the right support. Everything that’s happening in the frugal innovation space is gaining momentum and events like , started just last year, are trying to connect grassroots innovators with enablers, experts, mentors, and peers to take their ideas to the next level. However in the effort to scale through connections and networks, it would be worthwhile to think of the core value of Jugaad in that it evolves to solve a specific problem within a context using resources available easily. In an effort to scale, it would be crucial not to forget this.

The future for frugal innovation is much brighter than it has ever been, and is continuing to grow. However, it’s important to think about ways in which to inspire more people to partake; by connecting ideas with makers, inspiring needful communities by demonstrating jugaad-made solutions, and thereby maturing an ecosystem that is more deeply interconnected. Taking a human-centered approach by linking the ingenuity of those most closely affected by challenges with those working to address them will lead to solutions that are relevant, impactful, and sustainable.

I believe that the spirit of jugaad can help establish an ecosystem that serves not only metropolitan areas, but which also extends deeper into rural hinterlands, which are typically underserved by such progressions. This should be the way forward, and my colleagues and I at Quicksand will continue to help sustain and promote the Jugaad approach to innovation.

Quicksand DISPATCH

Quicksand is a design thinking and innovation consultancy. DISPATCH is a space where we tell stories of our day-to-day.

Selvan Thandapani

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Quicksand DISPATCH

Quicksand is a design thinking and innovation consultancy. DISPATCH is a space where we tell stories of our day-to-day.