In the Schumpeter column of The Economist on ‘Asian Innovation’, 24 March, 2012, the Economist argues ‘frugal ideas are spreading from East to West’. I’d like to take this opportunity to clarify and dispel some notions of frugal innovation as presented by the Economist articles.
Since the Economist’s seminal special report espousing frugal innovation in April 2010, there tends to be a focus on purely cost reduction through component redesign or the stripping of superfluous features to a level of basic needs. While component innovation is important, I’ve found, based on interviews of many of the “frugal innovators” exemplified in the Economist articles, that they equally embrace modular, architectural, and business model innovation.
I have proposed a theory of frugal innovation which argues that frugal innovation isn’t being practised solely within the Schumpeterian domain of technology innovation, but inevitably overlaps and extends into the boundaries of institutional innovation and social innovation. It is in those intersections that hold the sweet spot which characterizes the true nature of frugal innovation, one that transcends a new value proposition based on cost or a specific marketing strategy.
This confluence of technology, institutional, and social innovation is necessary given the unusual contexts of emerging markets marked by resource constraints, institutional voids or even complexities, and large populations with affordability constraints. So simply put, frugal innovation provides functional solutions through few resources within complex or extreme contexts for the many who have little means.
Given local institutional contexts, frugal innovation discovers new business models, reconfigures value chains, and redesigns products to serve users who face extreme affordability constraints, in a scalable and sustainable manner. It involves overcoming or tapping resource constraints and institutional voids and complexities to create more inclusive markets (Bhatti, 2011).
So there is potential to demonstrate that this is a new kind of innovation process which leverages the challenges of institutional and resource challenges to debunk heavy R&D investment claims, and achieve profitability from underserved consumers. It is different from the standard innovation approach predominantly practiced in more developed contexts.
But to what degree are the two different, is a question I am in the middle of finding answers to.
CEO of GE Jeff Immelt calls the frugal innovation phenomenon reverse innovation. “If GE doesn’t master reverse (frugal) innovation, the emerging giants could destroy the company” (Immelt, Govindarajan, and Timble, 2009). Although there are several dimensions to frugal innovation, the overarching theme is simplification in process and outcome. There can be many connotations for “reverse” which are similar to frugal innovation in both process and outcome.
One, frugal or reverse innovation integrates specific needs of the bottom of the pyramid markets as a starting point and works backward to develop appropriate solutions which may be significantly different from existing solutions designed to address needs of upmarket segments (Silicon India, 2010). The context in which this innovation is seen occuring in lies in developing markets. Fu, Soete & Sonne (2010) claim that the innovation process itself is now likely to be reversed, starting with the design phase which will, to a large extent, be concerned with finding functional solutions for some of the particular BoP users’ framework conditions… (such as) a clear adaptation to the often poor local infrastructure facilities with respect to energy delivery systems, water access, transport infrastructure, digital access.
Two, there is a reverse process of diffusion among consumers. Innovation is often perceived in the developed world as technological revolutionary products tried and tested by innovators and early adopters (Rogers, 1962). Trendy and expensive products are accepted by the top of the pyramid first which then get trickled down to the masses or early and late majority consumers. Professional groups in the highest income bracket in society that constitute the “tip” of the income pyramid act as the early adopters and the first try-out group, contributing to the innovation monopoly rents of the innovating firm. But this “professional-use driven” innovation circle has been the main source for extracting innovation rents out of consumer goods that was considered “too long” (Fu et al, 2010). Hence, in frugal innovation we see a challenge to this notion of diffusion from the top to the bottom. Frugal innovation “reverses” the process of diffusion by targetting the early and late majority consumers and relies on profiting not from monopoly rents, but rather economies of scale rents. Eventually, all segments of the market benefit from the innovation. A prime example of this is mobile phone banking by Telenor in Pakistan and MPesa in Kenya wherein success has in these business models have been marked through adoption by rural BOP consumers before becoming popular in all segments rural and urban.
Three, we might see a trend in practices of innovation being adopted from the East to the West wherein Western practices had dominated thus far. Innovation is no longer formulated just in the West and exported to the developing world. Instead, many new innovations that are considered “frugal” will emanate from the emerging world and into the West (The Economist, 2010). Again, mobile phone banking and inexpensive and portable medical devices are emanating from emerging / developing markets but could find their way to mature markets.
I believe frugal holistically describes the phenomenon more aptly. Reverse innovation, to me, is based on a primary characteristic of the phenomenon which is bottom-up and East-to-West. Others have called this phenomenon “Cost” innovation (Li and Hang, 2010) and “BOP” innovation (Prahalad, 2005) which limits the definition to simply reduction in cost of outcome for a specific target market. Instead, frugal innovation embodies the frame of mind, philosophy, process, and purpose behind this phenomenon spanning from exploration to exploitation phases. More on this later!