Navi Radjou
Navi Radjou

Red Social Innovation team meets Navi Radjou. An innovation thinker who grew up in Pondicherry, in India. French on his father’s side, an officer in the French Navy, he left India to study business computing at École Centrale de Paris, in France, focusing his research on Open Information Systems and frugal innovation. “For decades, ingenious entrepreneurs in developing economies in Asia, Africa, and South America have applied frugal innovation principles to rapidly develop simple but effective solutions to problems facing local communities” explains Navi Radjou.

Can you share a few examples of frugal innovation?

In a remote Indian village, Mansukh Prajapati, a potter by training, developed MittiCool, a fridge made entirely of clay that doesn’t require electricity and can keep fruits and vegetables fresh for several days. Prajapati didn’t even finish high school. Yet, after an earthquake hit the region where he lived, Prajapati relied on what he already has – his expertise as a potter and an abundantly available natural resource (earth) – to create an innovative solution to help villages preserve fruits and vegetables.  

Likewise, five graduates from Stanford University created Embrace, a portable infant warmer that preserves premature babies at constant temperature. This simple solution doesn’t require electricity and costs only $200 – compared to incubators used in developed nations that costs $20,000. This frugal solution does better with less, because Embrace enables mothers to hold their premature babies against their chest: this intimate practice known as “kangaroo care” guarantees the mental well-being of the premature kid when he/she grows up. Embrace has already saved the lives of nearly 500,000 babies worldwide. Today, this frugal infant warmer is used in Ukraine, where premature births have tripled since the war began. 

Today, frugal innovation is being embraced in developed nations (Europe, US) to deal with three major challenges: decreasing purchasing power of consumers, growing social inequalities, and climate change. For instance, the French carmakers Renault and Citroen are applying frugal engineering to create affordable electric cars. In the US, the so-called “richest country in the world”, over 60% of citizens don’t have $500 in savings to deal with a medical emergency. Many fintech startups are emerging in the US to create frugal financial solutions that improve the financial well-being of millions of Americans.

How do frugal and technological innovations fit together?

Mitticool and Embrace (mentioned above) are “low-tech” solutions. But you can apply frugal innovation also to create high-tech solutions. For instance, Algosurg is an Indian startup that uses AI algorithms to automatically convert 2D X-ray images into 3D models, allowing hospitals to make more accurate diagnoses without investing in expensive CT scanners or MRI machines.

Frugal innovations can also be “phygital” by cleverly combining physical spaces and digital transactions. For instance, Nickel is a French startup that created a frugal solution to address financial exclusion. You can activate Nickel’s service (which gives you a bank account and an international debit card) in just 5 minutes in any of the 7,000 neighborhood stores across France that are part of Nickel’s network. You can then do all banking transactions online using your mobile phone and pay an average annual fee of just €20. Today Nickel boasts 3 million customers and is now expanding in other European countries like Germany and Belgium (where you can activate a Nickel account in… bookstores!)

How can we apply frugal innovation techniques to the Red Cross, whether in the social, medico-social or international humanitarian fields?

As I explained in my TED talk, there are 3 core principles of frugal innovation that Red Cross can adopt to innovate faster, better, cheaper in the medico-social and humanitarian fields. 

Principle 1: Keep it simple. Perfection is the enemy of good. Rather than over-engineer complex solutions, quickly design and launch a “good enough” product or service with a few features that address the users’ most fundamental need, and then improve it to provide greater value over time. 

For instance, the Embrace infant warmer features just one indicator that shows when it needs to be reheated. This is a simpler and more effective than an electronic indicator displaying the temperature data since mothers can’t understand what that data means.

Principle 2: Do not reinvent the wheel. Leverage existing resources, assets, knowledge that are widely available and reuse or recombine them to create a frugal solution. In India, GE Healthcare developed a low cost, portable ECG device, the MAC 400, which is sturdy enough to operate in extreme conditions in rural areas. Instead of designing a new printer from scratch for the MAC 400, GE’s R&D team adapted a printer that was being used in buses to print tickets. Likewise, Digital Green is a digital knowledge sharing platform that enables farmers in Asia, Africa, and South America to locally adopt proven agricultural best practices developed and applied successfully elsewhere.

Principle 3: Think and act horizontally. Rather than “scale up” your solutions, if you want to be agile and create local impact, you need to “scale out” horizontally by decentralizing your activities in small-scale units that can sense and respond quickly to local needs and offer personalized solutions.

For instance, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), has created a global network of 91 Accelerator Labs in 115 countries. These accelerators do two things: 1) identify local innovations that already succeeded and amplify them, 2) ”scale out” a proven local solution by replicating it in other countries.

What could be the most inspiring examples of frugal solutions for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement? 

When Hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012, FEMA — the US federal agency in charge of disaster management — and its Field Innovation Team worked with a group of local “hackers” to rapidly restore internet connection and redesign the disaster recovery center for quicker assistance to survivors. They did it much faster, and more cost-effectively, compared to top-down aid organization methods. 

As cataclysmic natural disasters multiply in coming decades due to global warming, international aid organizations must humbly co-lead climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts with local NGOs and citizen groups, as FEMA did.

I also like the way Handicap International (HI) is leveraging high-tech frugal solutions to create high impact across the world. HI is leveraging 3D printing to create affordable prostheses for people in isolated regions or conflict zones

who lost their limbs. HI has also developed a digital tele-readaptation platform. For developing these frugal solutions, HI has received the European Union’s Horizon Prize for Affordable High-Tech for Humanitarian Aid awards. 

To what extent does frugal innovation help to foster the resilience of populations and territories?

We need to encourage “innovation of the people, by the people, for the people”.  That’s the only way to fight the sense of powerlessness and inertia that people experience worldwide. In the face of rising social inequalities, wars, and climate crisis, everyone is praying for a “savior” to come. Unfortunately, no one can save us except ourselves. I left Silicon Valley after living there for 13 years, because I could no longer tolerate the “savior complex” of Big Tech which believes that novel technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI) will solve all major problems humanity is facing today. That’s a very naïve and even dangerous perspective. I don’t believe in “top-down” policies or techno-solutionism. Instead, we need to empower local communities to take their destinies into their own hands and leverage local resources to address local issues. Frugal innovation represents that “bottom-up” approach to solving local problems. Frugal innovation is based on a ”learn by doing” empirical approach. The more the territories and regions invest their vital energy to develop their own frugal solutions, the more confident and resilient they would become. 

What role does the African continent play in terms of frugal innovation?

Africa is leapfrogging the West in terms of socio-economic development by powerfully leveraging frugal innovation. In sub-Saharan Africa people are using abundantly-available mobile connectivity to go straight from un-banking to mobile banking and from candlelight directly to solar light. For instance, Kenya pioneered M-PESA which enables over 80% of the local population today to make mobile payments without having a bank account. M-PESA spun off M-KOPA, a digital venture that offers affordable off-grid solar energy to Kenyans on a pay-as-you-go basis. Likewise, Ushahidi, a digital platform, also launched in Kenya, uses crowdsourced data to support communities afflicted by conflicts, natural disasters, and humanitarian crises. 

Today, Africa is leveraging Artificial Intelligence (AI) to deliver frugal services in education, agriculture, healthcare, energy, and finance to hundreds of millions of citizens – thus accelerating sustainable development across the continent. For instance, Ghana is leveraging AI to help local farmers protect crops and increase yields. Likewise, many fintech startups are using AI to approve microloans to small-medium businesses in Africa who don’t have credit history. 

Is frugal innovation the answer to fatality and gloom?

Frugal innovation is the perfect antidote to the helplessness and the apocalyptic visions that dominate our societies today. The foundation of frugal innovation is a unique mindset known as jugaad, a Hindi word for creative resilience. Jugaad is about never giving up. It’s the art of using your ingenuity and empathy to transform adversity into an opportunity to improve your life and others’. We need to enkindle the jugaad spirit of individuals and communities worldwide, so they use local and “inner” resources to create frugal solutions to address the “polycrisis” – multiple global risks (humanitarian, ecological, social, economic) that are interconnected and compounded – that we will face in the decades to come. 

How can organisations and people be managed to enable resilience and frugal innovation?

Resilience is like a muscle that needs to be exercised constantly to be effective. Likewise frugal innovation is neither a process, nor a tool, nor a scientific method that can be deployed in a “top down” fashion. In spirit and in practice, frugal innovation is closer to a fluid art and culture than to an exact and rigorous science. More importantly: an organization does not practice frugal innovation, rather it is the individuals in that organization animated by a jugaad (ingenious) spiritwho practice it.

Rather than try to institutionalize frugal innovation as “the next big thing”, companies and non-profit organizations should seek to identify and celebrate anti-conformist employees who already think and act like frugal innovators. These “outliers” are audacious employees who defy policies and guidelines to generate disruptive ideas unconventional solutions. By recognizing these pioneering employees publicly, organizations can send a positive signal to other employees: it is good to think and act flexibly and innovate frugally. 

But leaders should also recognize, and even welcome, the failures of frugal innovators to show that “intelligent failure” in the pursuit of innovation is very positive. This is how employees could build and strengthen their “resilience muscle”. For example, the Indian conglomerate Tata Group celebrates both success and failure. Each year, as part of the Innovation Awards, the CEO offers the “Dare to Try” prize to cross-functional teams who have courageously piloted a disruptive innovation and failed initially but are ready to start again with a new approach to achieve their ambitious objectives. As Nelson Mandela said: “I never lose, I either win or I learn.”