Frugal Innovation is quite a new topic in both academia and policy circles, leaving it undervalued and sometimes misunderstood. The Working Group for Frugal Innovation and Development (WG) aims at bringing together academics from different parts of the world in an effort to take up unanswered questions and misunderstandings together, instead of each on their own.
What are the core topics?
While debates on Frugal Innovation mostly comprise definitional discussions, the WG has decided to shift its focus to differentiation within the concept in terms of technological application, economic sustainability and inclusiveness. Instead of seeing Frugal Innovation as a binary concept (either frugal or non-frugal), WG members view Frugal Innovation as a concept consisting out of different degrees of frugality.
What are our aims? What do we want to achieve as a Working Group?
In 2016, the WG handed in a COST proposal, in order to support the WG’s activities aimed at institutionalizing and expanding the knowledge base on Frugal Innovation. The WG will also host a seminar at the EADI conference (August 2017) in Bergen, Norway and come together at the conference organized by the Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa (November 2017) in Leiden, the Netherlands.
About the Working Group
Frugal innovation concerns value-sensitive design and marketing strategies that bring sophisticated products within the reach of relatively poorer consumers. Through re-engineering and re-inventing high-value consumer products and dramatically lowering their unit consumer price, a significantly extended range of products can be made affordable for the roughly four billion consumers at the Bottom or Base of the Pyramid (BoP).
The challenge is not simply providing stripped down versions of high-value products, but instead providing value-sensitive innovations that are truly compatible with the unique circumstances of relatively poorer consumers, and to find ways to co-produce these innovations with local producers. For example, developing much cheaper and more robust weather stations in cooperation with African universities or improved access to micro-credit through innovative mobile-phone services.
While these examples show their developmental potential, frugal innovations can also lead to increased environmental damage and more exploitative labour conditions if the ‘stripping down’ means undercutting existing environmental and labour standards. Moreover, when frugal innovation and the technologies and strategies it involves are fully developed in the headquarters of Western or Chinese, Indian or Brazilian companies without any interaction with local entrepreneurs, these strategies are less likely to generate local developmental spin-off’s in terms of for example promoting forward and backward linkages in production, innovation, technology, and employment.
The initiators of this proposed working group are already working together in the Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa, a joint initiative from three universities in the Netherlands. This working group aims to promote a broader academic and policy relevant discussion on this important emerging field with researchers based in Europe and beyond. The idea is to develop a network of researchers working on frugal innovation in Africa, Asia and Latin America, to share research experiences and to become the European hub for research on frugal innovation with a strong developmental focus.
We think that for an adequate understanding of the developmental potential of frugal innovation we need analytical frameworks and theories that go beyond the rather normative and prescriptive theories that currently dominate the academic discourse on frugal innovation, and which tend to emphasize its ‘inclusiveness’ for the developing world. The aim of our working group is to develop analytical frameworks and thinking models that can help us to better understand and assess the developmental implications of frugal innovation, and can therewith lead to a more balanced perspective on what the phenomenon of frugal innovation entails, both locally, nationally and globally.