Emerging Technologies

Frugal tech can make innovation affordable. Here's how

looking up at a series of lights on wires hanging from the ceiling in a story about tech innovation

We need egalitarian innovation in technology now more than ever. Image: Unsplash/Skye Studios

Phil Rowley
Head of Futures, OMG UK
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Emerging Technologies

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  • With the global economy in danger of falling into recession, we need egalitarian innovation in technology now more than ever.
  • The Indian word for frugal innovation – 'jugaad' – can inspire us to focus on optimizing and economizing to improve access to tech.
  • India's mission to Mars highlights how we can change the world by repurposing existing tech and tools to spur innovation.

At the start of the year, the World Bank issued a stark warning that the global economy stands "perilously close to falling into recession". But this doesn’t give the tech world permission to stand still until markets improve.

We need egalitarian innovation more than ever. Pricing the most transformative technologies so that only the most affluent counties and individuals can afford them will have dire consequences for all of us.

We are often reminded that necessity is the mother of invention. In India, there’s a word for frugal innovation – 'jugaad' – which originally meant using clever shortcuts to solve problems in the face of scarce investment. Increasingly, it has come to mean innovations centring on optimizing and economizing to give consumers access to tech previously considered high-end or unaffordable.

Initially, this placed an emphasis on levelling up developing nations to meet the same standards of living as in more developed ones, but this concept can be applied to any market in the midst of a downturn.

Have you read?

I was able to attend the Slush festival in Helsinki in mid-November, which is dedicated to provocative start-ups and edge technologies. While the likes of CES and MWC reveal the technologies that will hit the shelves in the next 12-18 months, Slush offers an early glimpse of the tech that will come to fruition up to a decade down the line.

The concept of ‘jugaad’ was alive and well at Slush, with frugal tech standing as a prominent theme across multiple categories – from retail to edtech to the metaverse, and more.

Reduce costs, not cut corners

Numerous exhibitors at Slush demonstrated it is very possible to offer great technology-led experiences that distil down the key features without the unnecessary bells and whistles that confer an idea of ‘premium’. With just a few tweaks and shortcuts, they offer what the market leaders can – but at a fraction of the cost.

Reducing costs doesn’t always have to mean cutting corners or reverse engineering top-tier tech and using cheaper components. Resources are better used in thinking about what makes an experience work so well. As such, the biggest expense in product development should always be brain power.

Innovation certainly doesn’t need to be all-encompassing or grand. Small, iterative change can have just as great an impact over time if it brings down costs and opens up genuinely useful technologies to broader audiences – and more importantly those that can happen now.

Often thinking smaller – or even better, differently – on product development can be what changes a category. Jugaad principles show us how to:

  • Think laterally, not literally
    The solution hiding in plain sight is often the route to victory, so challenge assumptions and shift perceptions to flush it out.
  • Reuse, recombine and recycle
    Better doesn’t have to mean new. Instead, use what you already have to make what you need. Redeploy, recycle and recombine the tools, materials and ideas already in your possession to solve a problem. An additional benefit of (re)using existing – or even low – tech is that as well as keeping costs down, it is inherently more sustainable.
  • Network your knowledge
    Jugaad speaks to accumulation, not duplication. As Sir Isaac Newton put it, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Look outside of silos and call on thinking from different disciplines or adjacent industries that have already solved different parts of the puzzle. It is how this is combined that unlocks the value.

Reach for the stars

The space industry may not immediately spring to mind when we consider frugal technology, but this sector has – wittingly or unwittingly – become a poster child for jugaad. The results of this approach are apparent in the commercial sector in which players like SpaceX have been able to reduce the costs of commercial launches – but also in state-sponsored space exploration.

It’s only fitting that the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) became the fourth space agency – and notably the first of an Asian nation – to successfully reach Mars. In 2014, the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), arrived two days behind NASA’s MAVEN vehicle.

The US mission to the red planet cost $671 million, but at $74 million India’s project came in at about 90% cheaper. Arguably MOM was intended more as a statement of intent than as a scientific mission, but it’s still hard not to raise an eyebrow at the comparative costs.

So, how was India able to successfully break into the interplanetary club at a fraction of the cost of more seasoned spacefarers? The answer lies partly in (significantly) cheaper labour costs, recycling components from previous missions and a willingness to take a risk on building just one spacecraft, rather than a series of prototypes.

However, one of the most significant cost savings stemmed from lateral thinking. Getting anything out of Earth’s orbit is hugely expensive. Extremely powerful launch vehicles are required to escape our planet’s gravitational pull and the average cost of a NASA launch is $152 million. That’s more than twice the budget of the ISRO’s entire Mars mission.

The MOM team had to approach the challenge in a different way. ISRO used its own less expensive PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) to deliver its spacecraft into, but not beyond, Earth’s orbit. From here, it built up sufficient speed by circling the planet for a month until it could break free of Earth’s gravitational pull on a trajectory to Mars.

Yes, this final strategy is clever, but not all of ISRO’s innovations would necessarily count as rocket science – and that’s a very good thing. Simple pragmatism and a willingness to do things differently can be just as significant as throwing money at a problem.

The next step in our Martian aspirations will be to take astronauts to the red planet and bring them home again. In 1996, Robert Zubrin, a charismatic but rebellious scientist, proposed a scheme to reach Mars within a decade using ‘off the shelf’ technologies and lateral thinking.

Rather than working to the conventional wisdom of building a vast (and vastly expensive) spacecraft in Earth orbit for a round trip, Zubrin suggested something radically different. His Mars Direct proposal is essentially an update of the age-old chicken, fox, farmer and grain puzzle.

The plan consisted of using an unmanned vehicle to travel to the planet fuelled for a one-way trip. On arrival, the ship would then extract enough oxygen from the Martian CO2 atmosphere to generate enough fuel for the return leg.

Next, send in the humans in a similar manned craft and they’d be all set to return to Earth on the completion of the mission and so and so forth. Frugal and effective. Sadly, NASA decided the idea wasn’t innovative enough.

Tech innovation benefits all

Technology that has the capacity to change the world doesn’t need to be ‘new’. Innovation can stem from how we use existing tech – how we build it, how we use it, and how we combine it with what already exists.

So, next time you’re challenged to think innovatively, remember jugaad and consider how Zubin would approach the problem. What tools do you already have to work with, and what more could you do if you used them differently?

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