The frugal innovator: creating change on a shoestring budget

The Frugal Innovator's author offers some bold ideas for making our limited resources go further. He deserves a wide readership, says reviewer Charlie Dawson.

by Charlie Dawson
Last Updated: 02 Jun 2014

This book is about an important idea, but is it an important book? It takes a bit of investment to get to the point but I like the ideas in it very much.

It tackles the issue of how 10 billion people will need to work out how to live on our planet. It does it in a constructive way, painting a picture of different versions of the challenge across developing and developed worlds, then drawing on a host of examples to identify the constituents of 'frugal innovation'.

I'm not entirely sure who the audience for this is. The decision-makers I know would prefer something more direct, crisp and practical. People closer to the front line in societies where action is needed might prefer something more stirring and impactful. In fact, they might need something cheaper, more accessible and indeed more frugally innovative than a book.

This sounds critical but the essence of the book is excellent. Its argument is made in two stages.

First, why frugal innovation matters. This is the less successful of the two halves and understandably so. The arguments about the human battle to survive our own success are well rehearsed and explored by others, but the process of frugal innovation needs some kind of runway to make it clear why it's important.

The point is best made by comparing Pakistan with the Netherlands. Pakistan will have a population of 60 million by 2025 but has few natural resources and little arable land. It will need to import a lot of food with little natural capital to pay for it. It has a third of the fresh water of India, so competition for supplies should be expected. Its politics are unstable and it has nuclear weapons. Tricky.

The Netherlands is densely populated, energy intensive, mostly below sea level, so faces big challenges to manage water levels and use of land. Its economy and society thrive because of an extensive system of rules, regulations and social norms that encourage reciprocity. It gives hope that we can find sustainable ways of living together that make a lot out of a little.

The book makes more of these points, pulling the challenge apart and using snappy titles for its elements: the rush, the squeeze, the crunch and the swell.

The second half of the argument is where the fresh ground is covered. In this, Leadbeater describes the kind of answers we need and shows how society could work in a constrained and crowded future.

The four layers are labelled: lean, simple, clean and social. Lean is about building systems that find and cut out waste of all kinds, often accompanied by a business model that fuels them too. SABIS schools in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia are a revelation, using computer-aided learning that's made engaging with games and puzzles.

The approach requires much smaller sites and fewer teachers than a traditional school, so reducing costs and fees. An open business model means the idea can be replicated easily.

Simple is about looking to reduce functionality to the essence of what is needed. In the developed and developing worlds, it embraces discount airlines and a home-building system where bricks are made from local mud with a simple press.

Clean is about 're' thinking, looking to re-use ideas, products meant for other purposes and waste, again with a helpful view into business models. An example is an idea that creates fresh water out of, seemingly, nothing. Vapour in ambient air is condensed using a modified greenhouse and solar power. Its inventor funded the idea by growing tomatoes using the water and the greenhouse.

Social shows how people's involvement can make the difference. Examples include getting young mothers in Africa to take HIV drugs, not by making the argument to them more compelling but by finding older mothers to mentor them and change their attitudes.

The conclusion of this section is that we need to change our competitive assumptions about business and move towards collaboration and contribution from users. A strong organisational purpose becomes essential in order to mobilise people more productively.

The book ends with two German examples that show how the developed world can also embrace frugal innovation. The town of Freiburg has become a model of frugality in its energy, transport and housing, and car hi-fi maker Harman has unlocked new markets by reducing its costs by two-thirds.

An important book? Maybe not. But I hope its thinking finds the audience it deserves.

- Charlie Dawson is the founder of growth and innovation consultancy The Foundation.


The Frugal Innovator: Creating change on a shoestring budget

Charles Leadbeater

Palgrave Macmillan, £16.99

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