Frugal Innovation & The Zeitgeist
Frugal Innovation rolls off the back of creativity before capital. Frugal Innovation is, I believe, going to be everybody's future in terms of innovation because it's about creating more value with less. It comes from the Indian-Hindi word, jugaad, which actually it doesn't come from 'cause frugal and jugaad are two separate words but the concept is jugaad which is hack or make due. Something that a lot of cultures have been doing for a lot of time but generally developed countries with tons of money do not make due. They make to order which is different. And I learned a lot about frugal innovation when I was on a frugal innovation panel in South by Southwest in 2016 and I met my fellow panelist who was running it all called Navi Radjou. Now Navi has written this insanely good book. It is one of the best things I've ever read, and it's called Frugal Innovation and it's basically how do we get more value with way less resources? So, a lot of people think the word frugal means that we're...
going to compromise, we're going to take less. We're going to accept that we want to spend less and so we'll take a lower quality. But in fact it doesn't mean that. It's delivering quality along with all these other attributes, purpose, but it's delivering it for less. So if creativity before capital is making you thing twice about the money you spend, frugal is putting even more limitations because you're saying do not compromise anything, but spend less. You have to be way more creative with the way you think. Or frugal, which is kind of fascinating. This is a philosophy that is renowned right now for its pickup in India and in Africa. For instance, in Africa they don't have a nationwide, or even a city wide emergency system. You can't call 9-1-1, or in Australia it's triple zero. You can't call an emergency number. But what they do have, and have been using in an amazing variety of ways if a network of individuals with cellphones. And so in parts of Nigeria, they've worked out systems of people notifying emergency authorities via Twitter. Or via normal social media networks so that they can get the news of an accident more quickly. You can't dial direct, but you can pop it up on Twitter and someone will come and help you. It's kind of crazy. This is their idea of frugal. Why setup a network, when there already exists networks that you can simply tap. This idea is still offering that value of that emergency service, but without the upfront cost of actually having to outreach and do this network. In fact, it would be (muffled) to just give more people phones and remind them if you see anything bad make sure you Twitter it. So frugal is really rethinking also how you interact with consumers. So it can be business to business, but often it's offering something to consumers, and actually asking them to re interact back with you. So frugal has at its heart the idea of repair, the idea of distributed manufacturing, the idea that now we don't have to have huge factories producing things, we can send out blueprints or prototypes or plans and have decentralized production. How can we rope in all these new technologies to get things out to people that are just as good, but at a fraction of the price. And a really key part of this, something that I've mentioned already, is the prosumer. So frugal is more proactive than saying oh, we have this consumer and we're going to send them stuff. Our R and D department is going to whip up things and then we're going to test them on the consumers and let them know. Frugal innovation leans right in and invites the consumers to feedback and to hack, and particularly in Europe has been really, really instrumental in bringing the consumers on board. Like you know there are retail chains that are hardware chains where they have tool shops as part of it where people can buy their stuff and make it all in house and be observed by the people that own the hardware chain who can then go oh, these guys are making suggestions. We need to improve this, this and this. So the feedback length of time and the feedback is shortened, and suddenly the consumer has become a really active part of product development. Frugal involves really listening to the people that are using your stuff, and more than listening and observing it's actively inviting them to be a part of your development. What's interesting about that, that invitation to be a part of it is it also massively increases brand loyalty. So you get people who are like don't be hacking us, don't play with us, it's a closed system and you bring it back to us for repairs, versus people who embrace the hack. Who say you know what? That's awesome, celebrate the hack. Here's what these people have done with our product, that we didn't even think of. And they don't have to change for that, but by embracing it they're acknowledging that those consumers are a vital part of what keeps them ticking and designing this community. It's really interesting. So a couple examples of frugal innovation say the gravity light, so light is always an issue in Africa. People are always trying to solve how to bring light into peoples' houses at night because if you don't have light at night, which is a funny thing, I mean really, unless we have a blackout, when do we ever experience a night where we can't choose to turn on some light? But if you only have daylight, and you're working or say you're a student, you're helping your parents, you go to school, and then you have to help, do chores, until a certain point in time you might get a daylight hour or two, but other than that, you're going to be working by flickering candlelight. However, the designers of the gravity light came up with simply a bag on some cogs using kinetic energy, you fill the bag up with rocks or whatever is handy, you drop the bag, and that energy is converted into power for a length of time. It's so simple, and it's so effective. Now most of us wouldn't want to have to drop a bag on the ground to get their light going, but actually that's a super easy way to get light for an hour, possibly half an hour. Another classic one that is a classic frugal innovation example is the solar mosquito killer. So a lot of people are going out trying to find ways to eradicate mosquitos and a group of students came out with a way to use a bottle with a tiny bit of ciptic in it to attract the insects who are then trapped inside basically a soda bottle, and the sun's heat kills them. Kind of simple, it just hangs there. It might have a faint smell, hard to say. But at its fundamental key, at core value of that thing is for basically nothing you've built a mosquito trap that works really, really well, 100% of the time. Once they're in they can't get out. So this is the idea of frugal innovation. Often the solutions to us when we're used to things being beautiful and being the apple of whatever, often the solutions are bulky and a bit heavy going. You look at it and go oh, you just coupled this, this and this. But in fact they do the job. It's quite an incredible thing you know, India sent a satellite into space, I think it was quite a large one. No, it was a space mission, and they say it costs less than the movie Gravity. So America spends massive amounts more than 10 times more than India sending very similar things up into space. America's ones look really pretty, India's do not. But they both do the same job. Frugal is not necessarily accepting something that's not pretty. It's saying it can be pretty, but don't spend anymore money on it. So that's down to you, how are you going to make that thing resonate? How are you going to make it stand out from the crowd without losing any of the stuff? Sustainability is also at its core. That's why it's such an inherent part of adventurous thinking, because the backwards lens is really at the core of frugal innovation. And as Navi said to me at the conference is that I really like adventurous thinking because it's a mindset. It's not a one, two, three step. Like if you just had one, two, three steps very quickly your brain's just going to settle back into expert again. But this mindset of always ticking off these boxes, sustainable, quality, the mindset of adventurous thinking, of always making sure you've had a look from all these points of view, which always includes sustainability and purpose is a mindset. Right? Every time you do it, it's your brain thinking through this step, you add something to it. So frugal innovation is not necessarily the creative thinking process itself. I think that lens handles that for you, but it's a way to realize those ideas. And as you're realizing them, your looking at creating more with less. Has anyone had any direct experience with frugal innovation? Anyone done it in their work yet? Heard of it? It really is moving forward what most companies are talking about. Yeah, Lee.
I don't have any direct experience, but I was lucky enough to work for a period of time with Mike Moritz, who is the VC behind Google and Yahoo and all the major ones, and he was saying, we were talking about Web Van, which was the famous, the company that went out and bought warehouses and trucks and all this stuff, and he invested in it, and he was talking about that, and he goes, you know, the one thing is with Silicon Valley VC, is venture capitalists, they shouldn't really be in any business that needs a lot of capital, because it usually doesn't work out well.
That's true and it's ironic because you know, you think about technology, most of us, a lot of us look at it and go, you know, actually, the internet is a beautiful, cheap way to get out and test ideas. You think that, right? And yeah, there is, and other people can find masses and masses of money to spend. I mean for me I've always been a frugal innovator because I've always been on my own, and I've always been self funded. So it's a necessity, and I find it a very exciting restraint. So I do my own website, I do my own SEI, I do everything myself because I think, well you know, I'm not the best at it, but it's a really interesting thing to try, and you know perhaps I could outsource some of it. Sometimes I do because some things I'm really bad at, but I don't mind filing first. Rather than assuming you have to bring in specialists for everything. Because you know, it's a funny thing, I mean specialization was always what we were taught at school, you work out what you're going to do, you do it really, really well, you get better and better and better at it, and then you get incredibly employed. I was always the generalist because I actually couldn't decide what I wanted to do and I didn't think I should have to. So I've done a ton of stuff you know, based on architecture because that's a way of thinking that's very sort of big and wholistic but you know I've always done everything and now I've caused the whole generalist, the whole renaissance thinking thing is back in and apparently we're unicorns or narwhals depending on whether you're in the water or on the land. Yeah Sherry.
I was wondering, a long, long time ago, I did a lot of volunteer work for Habitat for Humanity.
And they didn't call it frugal innovation, but when I think about it through the lens that you're discussing, would that kind of be it?
Because what they did was they bought odd pieces of leftover land that were the corners and stuff that no one really wanted, and then they got a lot of donated building material and people putting in time and stuff like that, and then they were actually able to create this sort of housing mission from all these odd bits and pieces that sort of were like other peoples'-
Other peoples' junk.
Yes. Yeah, it's pretty interesting because I worked a lot with my rain wood harvesting company with Architects for Humanity where we're another like a subset of that, and the same thing, you got all this donated stuff, this stuff that had minimal value for the people that handed it over, it was like the extra stuff. But the architects involved, and the engineers and the designers were able to up value that to build something that was so much more than the sum of its part, which is the hear of frugal. You get all these odds and ends that no one else wants, but you end up creating something that has much more value.. And similarly a little while ago I was working with the mayor's housing department in San Francisco, talking about this issue of you know, in the increasing housing prices in San Francisco, you're losing the vitality which is artists. You're losing people who are incredibly creative, but don't necessarily work in tech, or in other jobs that are going to generate income. So they were talking about it, and I thought it was really insightful of them. They were looking at tiny little nobs of land like on the ends of blocks. The little pointy bits and pieces that were uninhabitable, but they were in the heart of the city in little areas, and could we come up with a tiny house, tiny house being a frugal innovation in that we reduce our footprint completely. Could we come up with a tiny house that could be craned in and sit there and allow people to live on these uninhabitable plots of land. And I actually came up with this little building called Tiny Box, Art Box, which was a live-work space. The idea being that like not only live there, but actually the outside of it becomes an artwork. So whatever you're working on is displayed in a certain section of it via your workshop so that not only do you have people living on that little block of land, but you also have art sharing so that those people that are in the middle of it all you know, sometimes you get that whole nimby thing of people saying well hang on, I paid so much to be here, why should they get it for so cheap? But if part of them living there is that we get to share that art, and it contributes to the whole changing vibrancy of the city, then you're actually adding even more value, and on top of that I said well let's make a resilient structure so that if something massive happens in the city, these things operate off grid for four days. So they have water in situ, they have solar panels, and the whole thing is literally off grid, except for the sewage, that gets tricky, off grid. Unless you've got a really big vegetable garden. But this idea was that we'd not only give housing, it's that yes and, but it's yes and in terms of realization of product. No more money, but how much more value can we add to this thing to make it super compelling and purposeful. So that's the heart of frugal innovation. It's a great book too, yes.
Yeah, I was just going to say Sally, you and I are soul sisters as we both know, and I'm also sort of an eclectic gypsy ne'er do well freak who can't seem to settle into one particular area. So in an effort to avoid, I was trapped down in the habit trail of corporate life about three months ago and realized I just couldn't do that again. So I picked up my business again, my own business that I started, and I mean talk about frugal. Everything, it's possible. I have been able to run this without, with almost zero overhead, and one example, is one of the subsections of what I do, I do secular arrangements in unusual, repurposed containers. Pumpkins, coconut shells, things from thrift shops, so forth. So I put an add in, it was fall, and I needed to do a bunch of things, and I came up with an idea to do them in pumpkins. And I realized that Halloween had just passed, and people would have these, they were getting rid of these pumpkins because they're going to rot. So anyway, I put an ad in social media on the Next Door app asking for pumpkins, succulents, what have you, and it went completely viral, and the people in the community using these resources, there were pumpkins, I'd come home, and there were pumpkins on my doorstep, and succulents, and it was amazing, I had to shut it down. I was able to do this charity sale I was doing with zero cost.
That's so cool because a lot of people immediately would say right, I'm thinking Fall, I'm thinking pumpkins, where can I find cheap pumpkins? Cheap pumpkins. But that concept of like take it one step further. Like I really want to do pumpkins, but like do I want to spend money on the pumpkins? It's not that I want to like profit off other peoples' pumpkins, but really, if we have waste out there and we can up purpose it, and then use it to provide something better. I mean I run my entire rain water business off a phone. I outsourced everything to make this thing super efficient, because I realized that you know, I could do that, and there would be a really frugal way of running a business that has a big impact online, but a really tiny footprint. So frugal is really, really key, and it's worth reading Navi Radjou's book, it's fantastic, and will give you much more insight into this whole concept. So yes, it's products and services, but at its heart, it's a different way of thinking. And it is that thing of creativity before capital, above everything else, without ever, every losing value, frugal innovation.