Frugal: A blind spot in the innovation network

A new network analysis from the GDI shows that frugal innovation has so far been a blind spot in the innovation network. Today, innovation tends to be understood in the context of complex technical developments – namely, more is more. The fact that innovation can also mean simplicity, low-tech and ‘more from less’ does not yet seem to be present in most people’s minds.

What is innovation? Let’s take the refrigerator as an example. An innovative refrigerator is often understood as smart – equipped with a touch screen, connected to the internet, controllable via an app, networked with other smart household appliances and equipped with various additional functions. More is more.

The Mitticool refrigerator by Indian potter Mansukh Prajapat, however, shows that innovation can also be different. After an earthquake, he was faced with the challenge of keeping food cool in the face of an outside temperature of 50° Celsius and no electricity. In response, he designed a refrigerator made of clay that, thanks to hollow walls and the principle of evaporation, keeps its contents cool and protects them from spoiling. In a country where more than 500 million people have to get by without a reliable electricity supply, it is not only smart, networked refrigerators that are needed. On the contrary, simple but reliable refrigerators that can manage without electricity have far greater utility. ‘Growth markets like India, China, Brazil and Kenya are breeding grounds for ideas like Mitticool that turn scarcity into opportunity and make more out of less,’ says Professor Jaideep Prabhu of Cambridge Judge Business School, explaining the rationale behind frugal innovation..

Despite its potential, the concept is still little known in our broader communities. This is demonstrated by a network analysis conducted by the GDI, which examined links within Wikipedia pages using the Condor program by Galaxyadvisors. This makes it possible to see how important a topic is.

Unfortunately, searching for the term ‘frugal innovation’ inside Wikipedia’s innovation network is a fruitless task. Despite frugal innovation being an important component of innovative work, the network focuses primarily on high-tech and complex innovations. Terms such as technology, invention, online shopping, engineering, manufacturing or history of science occupy central positions in the network. In addition, a cluster is formed consisting of terms from various sectors that are understood in the context of innovation. These include mining, insurance, pharmaceuticals, retail, tourism, shipbuilding, music, aerospace, weapons and the financial sector.

The visualisation of the network shows that innovation is, on the one hand, understood very broadly. And yet on the other hand, it has a bias towards more technology and greater complexity, more features, more sophisticated solutions and moonshot projects.

Wikipedia’s ‘frugal innovation’ network looks distinctly different. It is less concentrated and although several small topic clusters are formed, they are not strongly delimited from each other, but rather, closely entangled. Central terms include open innovation, sustaining innovation, open design, reuse and problem solving. It is not about having the most, newest or best additional features; it is about creating opportunities, developing open and accessible solutions and generating added value with modest resources.

Simplify. Reduce. Degrow. Frugal Innovation on the 18th European Trend Day

Frugal innovation is more than a term, it is a new mindset. How frugal innovation works, how companies create frugal business models and how frugal innovation can be combined with simplicity and beauty, you will learn at the European Trend Day 2022.

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