Frugal Innovation: how to do more and better with less

Published on: 1 September 2019

Keith James looks at what we might learn from a growing informal, grassroots movement.

Many churches face significant challenges. We are being asked to do more with less – as are many others: the NHS, education and third sector have all been grappling with more being required of them but with less funding.

And this country is not on its own in facing these issues. Over three billion people live outside the formal economy and face significant needs in health, education, energy, food and finance. However, there has also been real growth in community groups with limited resources, creating faster, better and cheaper solutions.

This movement is called “Frugal Innovation” and it is popular in Africa and South Asia, particularly in India where it is known as Jugaad, a Hindi word that means an improvised fix, a clever solution born in adversity.

People have learned to get more value from limited resources and find creative ways to reuse what they already have. For example, in India, potter Mansukh Prajapati has created a fridge made entirely of clay that uses no electricity and can keep fruits and vegetables fresh for many days — it is, quite literally, a cool invention.

In Kenya, half of the population uses M-PESA, a branchless banking service that uses basic mobile phones to enable people without access to traditional banks to deposit, withdraw, transfer money and pay for goods and services. This is greatly needed in Africa because 80 per cent of people do not have a bank account but 82 per cent have a mobile phone

Frugal Innovation takes something that is abundant — mobile connectivity for example — to deal with what is scarce — traditional banks.

This approach is diametrically opposed to the way we innovate in the West. Our conventional business model is “more-for-more”, but it is under pressure. Many people cannot afford existing products and services, and we are running out of natural resources. There is a growth in Frugal Innovation in the West with the rise of crowdfunding, peer-to-peer sharing and the maker movement.

The Every One Every Day project is a good example. It began with opening two shops (the first of five) on high streets in Barking and Dagenham. The scheme offers something which is plentiful – empty shop and office space – to meet a need for people to meet, make and create. They have since opened “maker spaces”, equipped with laser cutters and other tools, sewing machines and working kitchens.

If you want to be a Frugal Innovator there are a few key principles:

Seek opportunity in adversity. Difficult, unpredictable situations often contain within them the seeds and impetus for us to look afresh at familiar problems.

Do more with less. What do you have (and take for granted)?

Think and act flexibly and laterally. Ask: what’s another way of looking at this?

Keep it simple. Use existing resources, rather than focusing on what you do not have. Sometimes this simply means offering the resources or a challenge to others and inviting them to help or use them.

Include the margin. Who are the people who are missing or on the edge? Use the wisdom of the crowd. They can bring insight, energy, ideas that change familiar ways of looking at the same old problems.

Follow your heart. How much does that matter to you? Persistence and resilience are key attributes.

There are many examples of Frugal Innovation in the Bible. The story of the feeding of the 5,000 is one. It is principally a sign of how Jesus transforms human lives and meets our deepest needs for meaning and eternal life. But it also worth noting how Jesus keeps his nerve in the crisis of being faced with lots of hungry people, in a remote place.

The miracle of transformation is made possible by noticing and including someone who is marginal in that society and in that story, a child. The fragments are noticed and valued – when they are gathered up and there is enough to fill twelve baskets. On their own, they were merely scattered left-overs, but collected there is enough for another feast.

Churches often speak about themselves in terms of deficit: not having enough money, enough people, enough younger people, not having the right sort of building for worship and mission.

Frugal Innovation does it deny the reality of the problems we face. It has proved inspirational however, as it invites us to harness the resources we do have, to invite human ingenuity, to engage and receive from the marginal, to persist and experiment, so that adversity can be transformed into opportunity and blessing.

Further resources

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