Geographies in Depth

How France and India can unleash the power of “frugal innovation”

French President Emmanuel Macron (R) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, shake hands at the end of a  joint statement after their meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, June 3, 2017. REUTERS/Kamil Zihnioglu/Pool - UP1ED6313KNGA

"France’s engineering capabilities, combined with the Indian concept of frugal ingenuity, could help us solve global problems." Image: REUTERS/Kamil Zihnioglu/Pool

Navi Radjou
Author, Conscious Society
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According to a recent Gallup International Association poll, French President Emmanuel Macron and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are rated as two of the most favoured world leaders.

They have a historic opportunity to use their huge popularity and goodwill at home and abroad to heal our fractured world. The way to do it is through co-innovation — by bringing together Indian and French engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, designers, artists and business leaders. Together, these innovators will create solutions to what I call “problems without borders”: social inequality, global warming, chronic diseases, water and food scarcity.

Last December, in Mumbai, I attended the Indo-French STEAM School — which shows how co-innovation can have a major positive impact worldwide. This 10-day programme is co-organized every year by the French Embassy in India, the Paris-based Center for Research and Interdisciplinarity, and Maker’s Asylum, a community space in Mumbai. The programme enables STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) education through hands-on problem-solving based on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The 100 participants, mostly from France and India, were architects, designers, artists, engineers, academics, and students. Organized in 19 interdisciplinary teams, they were asked to design a product to tackle one of five specific Sustainable Development Goals in the Indian context: health, education, water/sanitation, energy, and sustainable cities. Over the course of the programme, the participants developed working prototypes of their products.

Out of the 19 final prototypes, here are four that I particularly like. They demonstrate how to harness the power of frugal innovation to devise simple and cost-effective solutions to major socio-economic and ecological problems:

- BAT is a low-cost wrist wearable to aid the visually impaired. According to a Lancet study, 36 million people in the world are blind, a number set to increase to 115 million by 2050. In India alone, 8.8 million citizens suffer from blindness and nearly 48 million have moderate and severe vision impairment, the largest number for any country. BAT wants to make life easier and safer for these people. The device, fitted with a Six Axis feedback mechanism, alerts the user of oncoming obstacles using vibrations, enabling an easier and less obtrusive way to navigate public areas.

- The SADA Kit is a simple, portable solution to prevent water-borne health epidemics caused by open-air defecation in rural India. 2.5 billion in the world still lack access to toilets. 300 million Indian women and girls are affected by it. The SADA kit aims to improve the health, safety, and dignity of these women. The kit comprises of a lightweight portable toilet with a pop-up privacy shield, a waste disposal bag, a small wearable light and whistle, soap, and sanitary pads for women.

- BIJLI aims to make affordable energy accessible to everyone. It is a low-cost device that can be retrofitted to existing bicycles. It transforms kinetic energy from the wheels into electric energy that can be stored in a battery pack or can be used to charge small electronic gadgets like mobile phones. The device can be used on the go or while the bicycle is stationary. Distributed energy solutions like BIJLI can be a boon for the 300 million Indians who live with little or no electricity today.

- WASTED is a smart waste segregation bin that helps spread better awareness of how much waste we generate. By turning the process of segregation into a game and connecting sensors in the actual bin to an app, it enables users to track and compare waste statistics with friends and neighbors. The idea is to “nudge” people and societies towards zero waste. India generates over 100,000 metric tons of solid waste each day, higher than any other country. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that by adopting the circular economy principles—through reuse and recycling of waste and resources—India could reap $624 billion in annual benefits in 2050 and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 44%.

Several STEAM School teams continue to work on their projects and some even plan to turn them into startups. Maker’s Asylum has offered the teams free access to its space, tools, and mentor support, to take their projects forward. But as Vaibhav Chhabra, founder of Maker’s Asylum, points out: “The goal of STEAM School isn’t to solve the SDGs in 10 days, but to teach how to solve them. We empower participants by providing them the confidence, tools, knowledge, space, and communities they need to change the world. STEAM also teaches empathy and tolerance to participants. They learn to transcend their differences, respect each other, and find unity in a shared purpose. They become globally-conscious problem-solvers.”

Vaibhav is right. I interacted with French students from CRI, EM Lyon Business School, and Institut Mines-Télécom at STEAM School. They were thrilled to be part of it and were excited to discover India in a positive light. They said that by working together with Indians, they developed greater respect for India and its culture. In today’s fractured world, we need more STEAM Schools to help young people in the West gain direct exposure to foreign cultures. This is key to breaking down prejudices spread by the (social) media and foster global understanding and mutual respect.

There is an Indian saying that captures the power of synergies: Ek Aur Ek Gyarah Hote Hain, or One and One Equals Eleven. France’s strong science and engineering capabilities, combined with the Indian concept of jugaad, or frugal ingenuity, could help us solve problems that threaten all of humanity.

Macron — who is visiting India this year — has also been inspired by another important Indian principle. In his memoir Revolution, he said that through the Indian epic Mahabharata, he “discovered India in the path of Dharma (the Hindu way of righteousness), which makes us responsible—each one of us in our respective fields and in solidarity with everyone—for the order of the world.”

Macron and Modi must seize this epochal opportunity to assume moral leadership and restore Dharma on earth. They can do so by bolstering co-innovation between India and France — through top-down R&D partnerships such as the International Solar Alliance as well as bottom-up collaborative initiatives like STEAM School.

As a French-Indian, I am thrilled to be part of this process. I left India in 1989 to study in France. During the 80 and 90s, France and India were both relatively closed to the outside world. Cooperation between both countries was very limited. I long dreamed of a day when India and France would team up to create solutions without borders. Now my dream is finally coming true.

The theme of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2018 in Davos was “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World.” You can’t fix a fractured and conflict-ridden world with the competitive zero-sum mindset that has long dominated world affairs. Instead, it’s time to adopt the cooperative “1+1=11” formula. Macron and Modi can show the way.

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