First, keep it simple
If you’d like to become a frugal innovator, the first principle to follow is: Keep it simple. Don’t create solutions to impress customers; make them easy to use and widely accessible. Rather than over-engineer complex products in insular R&D labs, product developers must observe customers in their natural settings to identify their real challenges and pain points. With this empathetic understanding, they can zero in on features that could solve pressing customer problems. Home accounting software firm Intuit’s employees spend more than 10,000 hours a year with their customers to study how they actually use their software, gaining valuable insight on how to simplify their software so it delivers greater value with fewer features. But you should first quickly design and launch a “good enough” product with a few features that address the customers’ most fundamental need, and then improve it to provide greater value over time.
Second, do not reinvent the wheel
The second principle of frugal innovation: Do not reinvent the wheel. Leverage existing resources and assets that are widely available, like using mobile telephones to offer clean energy or mom and pop stores to offer banking services. You could also borrow proven technologies in one sector and adapt them to make new products in your own industry. In India, GE Healthcare developed a low cost, portable ECG device, the MAC 400, which is sturdy enough to operate in extreme conditions in rural areas. Instead of designing a new printer from scratch for the MAC 400, GE’s R&D team adapted a printer that was being used in buses to print tickets. Another thing you can do is combine and integrate multiple existing technologies to create a new frugal solution. The nonprofit Learning Equality created KA Lite, an open-source software that makes the content of Khan Academy, which offers free online courses, accessible in places without Internet connectivity. KA Lite is preloaded on an ultra-cheap Raspberry Pi microprocessor, which can be used as a server in a school so students can access the educational content on low-cost tablets.
Third, think and act horizontally
The third principle is: Think and act horizontally. Companies tend to scale up vertically by centralizing operations in big factories and warehouses, but if you want to be agile, you need to scale out horizontally using a supply chain with smaller manufacturing and distribution units. Pharmaceutical giant Novartis is piloting a mini drug plant that is no bigger than a shipping container. Compared to large factories, it can produce pills ten times faster, costs 50 percent less to build and operate, uses far fewer natural resources, cuts emissions by up to 90 percent and boosts quality control. This micro factory could be set up quickly in hard-to-reach locations to help fight a disease outbreak. The same “downsizing” logic can also apply to distribution. Exit big-box retail stores; enter “micro shops.” Across the Philippines, there are nearly one million sari-sari stores, small family-run shops located in hundreds of villages. Hapinoy, a social enterprise launched by MicroVentures, provides business training and micro-financing to owners of sari-sari stores so they can upgrade their businesses to offer essential services like mobile finance and basic healthcare.
The global South, or the developing world, pioneered frugal innovation out of sheer necessity. The North, or the developed world, is now learning to do more and better with less as it faces its own resource constraints. As an Indian-born, French-American dual citizen, I’d love for us all to transcend the artificial North-South divide. Let’s harness the collective ingenuity of innovators around the world to co-create frugal solutions that will improve the quality of life of everyone while preserving our planet.
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