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Driving Innovations (Frugal) in a pandemic era

Updated: Aug 24, 2020

Frugal Innovations in a pandemic era

Doing More (and Better) with Less without compromising quality is widely becoming popular in all emerging and developed economies due to their lower costs and no-frills structure. This principle is a win-win socially responsible business proposition that combines high turnovers and profits while realizing the sustainable growth especially during the crisis times like of a pandemic. Frugal innovation originates from - (a) the cumulative effect of small-scale ideas scaled up over prolonged periods of time. or (b) shocks/ disturbances occurring in the society which directly affects the demand and supply of resources. The call for frugal innovations in this pandemic era is coupled with other drivers like environmental concerns (like waste management, minimizing carbon footprints). These innovations have emerged in various sectors varying from healthcare instruments to energy solutions and household appliances, and have raised attention amongst academia, practitioners as well as policy-makers. Sustainability of frugal innovations is believed to be related to the no-frills design and simplicity of the solutions. Few solutions from the pandemic era are discussed in the following sections.

Analysis of frugality in the Pandemic Scenario

Frugal Innovation, when pursued in its real sense ensures resource circularity, results in high quality, accessible, and affordable services and products for consumers in emerging markets—and elsewhere. The most visible and prevalent low-tech, mass-scale frugal innovations documented from past several pandemic months are illustrated below:

The cases discussed above illustrate clearly how various competencies can be brought to life. There are examples of organizations, enterprises, and individuals that have started thinking ways to innovate to meet the emergency in the society and economy will set new standards for others to aspire to. It is also seen that the entrepreneurial activity has accelerated to cater the demands while sourcing locally available materials. Many bigger organisations have tried to repurpose the existing technologies and business models to cost-effectively reach customers in these challenging times. We have also seen government agencies trying to use existing resources to the fullest extent possible during the COVID times while innovating in all the ways possible.

The key notable features of frugally designed products and/ or services are :

  • Affordability: low input and operation costs

  • Sustainable and circular options addressing the resource shortage problems

  • Sourcing without importing equipment or materials

  • Leveraging existing products, inputs and services

  • Minimalist features and functional requirements without over-engineering

  • Simple designs that are easy to operate with little or no prior knowledge or training

  • Utilizing digital platforms to a greater extend

  • Trying to be resilient

“Frugality is not the virtue of some bygone era; it pays today too”.

*Schonberger, R. J. (1987). Frugal manufacturing. Harvard Business Review, 65(5), 95–100.

Looking at the post-pandemic era

Frugal innovation has the ability to generate viable solutions for social-economic-environmental values while tackling the growing crisis of scarce resources. The world witnessed numerous innovations supporting the healthcare sector, consumer sector, logistics, digital technologies, especially during the last few months. There has been an overwhelming response of Governments, Corporates and Entrepreneurs to support the health care system in the fight against COVID19. Frugal products and services can be produced for any group of consumers by substantially increasing affordability and opening up a new segment relative to any specific price/ performance point. Many of the innovations happening in different scales could be termed local responses to short-term impacts of a global pandemic but they may have longer terms impacts that will build resilience in communities. When countries like India are aiming for self-reliant (Atma-Nirbhar) growth, frugal innovations will play a vital role in building back the economy and society. The key element of Frugal Innovation lies in its ability to be economically efficient under conditions of severe adversity and scarcity.

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