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Charles Leadbeater: 'The Frugal Innovator'

'Frugal innovation' is about harnessing technology to make the world better for the nine billion forecast to populate the planet by 2040. Charles Leadbeater's new book explains how it works.

One of the more disturbing facts about the 21st Century is that we now live in a world where there are more mobile communications devices than there are toothbrushes. Getting on for a billion people don't have access to clean drinking water, are trapped in food, health and energy poverty, living on less than a dollar a day. In contrast, it takes 800 gallons of water to make a single hamburger.

As horrifying as these statistics may be, today there is something that can be done, and according to Charles Leadbeater there is a huge technological opportunity to change the world for the better. But we need to fundamentally change the way we think. His new book 'The Frugal Innovator' puts forward a model for how technology can come to the rescue.

Leadbeater says that the origins of his book stem from a combination of frustration and excitement. "I have been writing about innovation for almost 15 years, but have been growing slightly frustrated with much of what I saw, which seemed to be innovation designed for proliferation. So, I became interested in innovations that I thought were really making a difference to how we would live."

At the same time he grew increasingly excited by what he saw in many parts of the developing world, where innovation was taking place almost in spite of the limited resources available. "Creativity was driven by the extreme constraints innovators worked under." But, because this kind of innovation can happen literally anywhere, "I think one of the stories of the future will be about innovations coming from many more places in the world – not just from the famous universities and high-tech clusters like Silicon Valley and Cambridge".

As the sub-title of his book explains, frugal innovation is all about "creating change on a shoestring budget", where the concept of bringing new products to the market for consumers with massive disposable income is reframed to deliver solutions to the problems of the world's poorest people. These solutions, says Leadbeater, share four characteristics that reduce waste and complexity, while being environmentally responsible and for the benefit of everyone. He sums it up by saying that in other words these solutions are lean, simple, clean and social.

Leadbeater is the first to admit that while the term 'frugal innovator' provides the title for his book, he didn't coin the phrase. "It has come from many different settings, but perhaps mainly from India where a wave of frugal innovations is emerging: from low-cost heart operations to water filters, trucks, cars and electronic tablets." In India, this kind of innovation is often nicknamed jugaad, a Hindi word that describes an improvisational way of fixing a problem. And yet, it is more than a quick fix, capable of operating on several levels: "Frugal innovation is set to become more systematic, used by organisations large and small. It can apply to products such as cars and water filters, or services such as health and education." Leadbeater says that one of the most important applications will be in cities, developing new frugal systems in utilities.

"Innovation is almost becoming a new kind of faith in the future that will be delivered by technology," says Leadbeater. But, he warns, to fulfill that potential "we need more than shiny new versions of products we already have. Manufacturing and engineering has a critical role to play in many of these products and systems, because we need new low-cost, simple, recyclable ways to generate and use energy and water. There is a huge new, exciting agenda here for engineers and manufacturers to create new products".

In search of innovation

Leadbeater's research into how this kind of ethical innovation evolved shows that it doesn't automatically need to be led by the fringes of technology. "Big business can play a role both as a source of innovation and as a means to spread it. The key is whether big business wants to meet the kinds of resource and price constraints that drive frugal innovation." He goes on to cite some of the most impressive innovations as having come from the likes of General Electric and Tata in India, as well as smaller innovators, such as Husk Power Systems, which has developed a way to generate energy by using discarded rice husks.

"I argue that one of the most important features of frugal innovators is that they are both rooted in a low-cost market and yet cosmopolitan in their sources of ideas and technologies. Some of the most impressive innovations are from people who trained and worked in the UK and the US, who have gone back to India or Africa to work."

The big question is why the need for frugal innovation is so pressing at the moment. Apart from the projected population growth, are there any changes in global conditions that have created a different approach to innovation? The frugal wave is coming, says Leadbeater, because of a depressed worldwide economy and flat growth in incomes. "The kind of growth we had in the second half of the 20th Century fed a proliferation of products and consumerism. The constraints we face, both of resources and incomes, will feed demand for well-designed frugal products. Some of this is about ethical consumerism, but mostly it's driven by the pressures of economics."

The winners, he argues, "need to be us and future generations, because frugal innovators will create products that will make the world liveable for nine billion people, mainly in cities, who want a better life. If we aim to meet the growing demand for better products and ways of life among urban consumers using current technologies and resources systems, then we will break through environmental and resource constraints. To meet all that demand in a sustainable way we need radically different kinds of products, systems and services".

An example of this approach that impresses the author is that of British engineer and inventor, Charlie Paton. "I met Charlie a long time ago when he was developing an idea for a tent that would conjure water out of condensation using solar power. It sounded beautiful, magical and mad. Charlie's idea thankfully is coming to fruition at scale. That's the kind of innovation, the kind of thinking and the kind of people we will need in future." 

'The Frugal Innovator' by Charles Leadbeater is published by Palgrave MacMillan, £16.99

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