If you are a frequent reader of down to Earth and/or interested in social innovation and new forms of the economy, you must already have heard of jugaad innovation. If you haven’t so far, it won’t be long before you start seeing it mentioned everywhere you look. Jugaad is a term recently brought to fame by Navi Radjou, an innovation and leadership strategist whose 2012 book « Jugaad Innovation: Think Frugal, Be Flexible, Generate Breakthrough Growth » is a best-seller. “Jugaad” is a Hindi word that can be defined as the “ability to improvise an efficient solution in a difficult context and with minimal use of resources.” Last week, Navi spent the afternoon at Danone headquarters in Paris to explain how this ability transforms the way we innovate, in developing countries as well as in more mature markets.
“Scarcity is the mother of invention, and adversity its father.”
One lunch time at Danone headquarters dozens of people gathered in a meeting room converted into a conference room for the occasion – and bursting at the seams! The event was co-organised by danone.communities, the Danone Ecosystem Fund and Danone for Entrepreneurs (a new innovative platform dedicated to entrepreneurship that supports former Danone employees setting up their own companies) to introduce the attendees to the concept of jugaad innovation.
Most of them have never heard of the concept before, and Navi Radjou introduced it in these words:
“In the past only Western nations innovated. Now more innovation is coming out of emerging countries, and starting to feed the growth of Western companies.”
Traditionally, the developed world adopts a “bigger is better” pattern when it comes to innovation, mainly by investing vast sums in research and development (600 billion dollars in 2011). Navi says less-wealthy countries are now coming up with their own pattern of frugal innovation: “less is more.” “The entrepreneurs’ state of mind is different there: they consider that scarcity is the mother of invention, and adversity its father.” He gives a series of examples, from India, Peru, the Philippines, Africa and elsewhere: the man who invented a device for his bike that turns each bump in the road into acceleration energy so the bike can travel faster; the solar panels that turn air humidity into drinkable water; the bottles filled with bleached water that refract the sunlight to create light, etc. Innovators in emerging economies diligently practice Lavoisier’s principle, “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed”. The circular economy is already a reality there, and it has been for centuries.
Frugal innovation grows in scale
But what’s new is that this frugal innovation has now reached a much larger scale. In India, it is now possible to perform heart surgery for $3,000, while it still costs $50,000 in the United States. Last November, NASA sent its mission to Mars. Three weeks before, India had launched its own mission, developed three times faster on one tenth of the budget. “The emerging world will leapfrog entire stages of development, » says Navi. « Africa, for instance, will become a true laboratory for frugal innovation.”
This creativity is, paradoxically, made possible by challenge and constraint. “Ingenuity has something to do with being ingenuous and innocent, and also with resilience: jugaad means never giving up.” This state of mind is supported by three pillars: frugality, agility and openness. Frugality, because it is about creating maximum value with minimal resources. While scarcity is part of the set of challenges that come with innovating in a developing country, post-industrialised nations are faced with the comeback of poverty and middle-class consumers will also have to learn to be frugal all over again.
Agility, because you need to be able to adapt to the circumstances. Navi gives the example of Haier, who found out once that a Chinese farmer was using one of their washing machines to clean his potatoes! They decided to adapt the machine to this new use, and it has become a best-seller in China.
Openness, because empathy and inclusion have to be part of the innovation equation. This is what leads researchers in Cambridge to develop glasses that enable us to “see” what blind people see, but also a company like Essilor to create low-cost glasses, produced and distributed locally in emerging countries, thus creating jobs in rural communities.
Finally, Navi insists that frugal innovation will become a new catalyst for cooperation between the North and the South: while developing countries used to adapt recipes that had not been developed for them but for the Western world, reverse innovation is now rebalancing the scales. “For a company like Danone, present in the North and in the South, this is a real development horizon.”
The power of positive constraints to drive innovation
Answering questions from the audience, Navi gives more insight on how to promote jugaad innovation in mature markets:
“You need to create positive constraints, and at the same time give a lot of freedom to create and experiment.”
That is what Renault did for the Logan, by giving its engineers a €5,000 budget, but also the latitude they needed to innovate. “Hackathons work on the same principle with time as a constraint: in a limited amount of time, you have to come up with an innovative solution to a problem.”
Corentin de Chatelperron, a French engineer, also dealt with constraints and used his creativity with his association Gold of Bengal. While working on a shipyard in Bangladesh, he came up with the idea of building boats using jute fibre instead of fibreglass. “Jute fibre grows almost exclusively in this region of the world; there even is a Ministry of Jute in Bangladesh.” Because it is faced with rapid deforestation, the country is obliged to import fibreglass – a polluting material – from China. Corentin and his teams consequently started to work on a boat made of 40% jute fibre and 60% fiberglass. Corentin travelled to France aboard that boat to prove that his idea worked; he was then able to find partners that helped him develop the first 100% jute fibre boat. “It is the first boat ever to use plant fibre rather than fiberglass. We are now transferring the technology to a jute mill so that it can spread. It took us less than three years and a very low budget to come up with an innovation that can really have an influence on the progress of a country.” Corentin’s newest adventure focuses on questions related to autonomy and self-sufficiency: he travelled alone on a boat for 6 months with a greenhouse, a hen house, a desalinator, a wood-burning stove, etc.
Both experiences have convinced him that: “The solutions to real-world problems can work for millions of people everywhere, especially when they are low-tech. Large research centres focus on high tech and creating new needs. But there is a whole portion of research that is led by people who work on low tech solutions and take into account people and the environment. We need to identify these “Gyro Gearlooses” who cobble something together in their garages, consider them as research labs and connect them to the people who need them.” In 2015, Gold of Bengal will launch an expedition in the Indian and Pacific Oceans to promote low tech: they will suggest 50 challenges to these “Gyro Gearlooses” and invite them to integrate their solutions on the boat. Corentin ends his presentation with words that resonate with the ideas of Navi Radjou: “If we stop copying and pasting innovations without adapting them to local contexts, we will be able to do great things. Each and every region of the world will develop its own progress according to its constraints and resources.”
And now, let’s get to work! As Navi said: “You need to take that leap. It is impossible to know all the answers beforehand; you need to test things, resist a top-down approach that is way too cerebral, and just go for it.”