Q&A with Jaideep Prabhu, Professor of Marketing at Cambridge Judge Business School

24 January 2017

What does innovation have to do with reducing poverty? Participants at a meeting of the UN's Commission on Science and Technology for Development, convened by UNCTAD, on 23-25 January heard many answers, among them the concept of frugal or jugaad innovation. But what is that? One of its foremost proponents Jaideep Prabhu, co-author with Navi Radjou of Jugaad Innovation: Think Frugal, Be Flexible, Generate Breakthrough Growth, explained.

Q: What is frugal or jugaad innovation?

A: Frugal innovation is trying to use ingenuity to do more or better with less. Whenever you face resource constraints, you have to use your ingenuity and think about how to solve problems or meet needs using the resources that are available to you.

In India, particularly in northern India, they use the Hindi word jugaad to describe this approach in rural communities - for example, often you will see farmers using water pumps as a motor by attaching them to the chassis of their carts.

The idea is also used in more sophisticated contexts by social entrepreneurs or even in big companies. The best way to think of jugaad is as a frugal, flexible and inclusive approach to innovation.

Q: How is it different from conventional or traditional innovation?

A: I've spent my career studying innovation and the first part was spent looking at innovation in large, Western companies. The idea was: "That's where innovation happens".

And when you look at large companies or even government projects, the approach is typically very structured - they have R&D departments, and people, usually scientists, trained to do innovation, working on long-term, quite expensive, projects pushing the technology frontier, sometimes for the sake of pushing it.

Now in the context of India and many other developing countries, frugal innovation is diametrically opposed to this kind of corporate innovation. Firstly, it's not expensive - in fact it's the opposite since the idea is use whatever is available and do more with less. Secondly, it's not very structured - there's a lot of improvisation, lateral thinking, and changing plans as the environment changes. And finally it's not exclusive - it is very inclusive. The idea is to solve problems for people whose problems haven't been solved, and meet the needs of people who are outside the formal economy. Often you are doing it with them, because they may have already found some sort of solution and you are helping to improve it or scale it.

Q: How can frugal or jugaad innovation support achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

A: The SDGs are concerned about ensuring that growth is sustainable environmentally and makes use of resources that are plentiful like sunlight and wind rather than non-sustainable and polluting, as well as being concerned with the livelihoods of people so that the benefits of innovation stay with communities. So jugaad innovation and other grassroots movements offer one way to do that - a way to meet peoples' needs in a sustainable way. So I think any efforts to meet the SDGs need to engage with this kind of indigenous innovation in resource-depleted areas.

Q: How can the Commission on Science and Technology for Development support and promote new innovation approaches in the international development community?

A: Organisations like the CSTD and UNCTAD can put a spotlight on these activities by talking about them and having conferences where we can learn more about this kind of innovation. They can also document these activities in a systematic way. At another level they play an even bigger role acting as a matchmaker and helping build networks. Often we find that people who are local to a particular community really have a deep understanding of the problems and the needs and they will use ingenuity to find solutions. But then they have difficulty scaling them. On the other hand, bigger organizations have the resources to scale but often they don't have an understanding of the local problems in context. So you need these kinds of partnerships between the small and the large. We need more conferences like the CSTD to create this ecosystem of partnerships.