Lessons from the Developing World.
Innovative products or services are things that others provide to us, right? It can perhaps sometimes feel that way in a modern consumerist world. To many people, design and innovation is simply the reserve of the creative industries; something that is done in trendy brick walled studios and then released to the world, making a fortune for the ‘creatives’ in the process. But is this really the case?
Kanak Das was fed up of potholes and bumps slowing him down on his daily bicycle commute to his workplace in a remote village in Assam, India. He decided to take matters into his own hands and designed a system that converts the shock of the potholes into ‘acceleration energy’, an innovation that has the potential to benefit the lives of people across the developing world using minimal resources and at minimal cost. This Jugaad – a colloquial Hindi and Punjabi word that can mean an innovative fix for a complicated issue or a simple work-around solution that bends the rules, is typical of the type of ‘frugal innovation’ which is common place in India. Professor Anil Gupta is an ambassador for frugal innovation and through his work with the Honey Bee Network in some of India’s poorest communities, he helps local innovators to bring their inventions to market – and there are lots of them. Over the last 20 years he has discovered thousands of products which are now distributed and sold throughout the world. Innovations like the Mitticool – a simple clay refrigerator which costs around $50 and now helps people in remote areas keep produce fresh without the need for electricity. The refrigerator uses water convection to cool produce within it; it’s the same principle that has been used in the east for centuries, now adapted to modern living, and it was very familiar territory for its inventor Mansukhbhai Prajapati, a local potter whose family had been producing traditional clay storage pots for generations. Through his work Professor Gupta has seen countless citizens moved to innovate through necessity. For the professor and the people he meets, design and innovation certainly isn’t the reserve of the creative industries, but something that everyone does – because they need to.
In recent times it has perhaps become easier in higher income countries to buy solutions to our everyday problems or expect them to be provided to us for free. But faced with a less financially secure future things are changing. Our public services for example are at breaking point as they struggle to cope with the demands being placed upon them by an ever expectant, ever demanding population. More and more we see that the people who provide our public services are being challenged with saving money whilst maintaining service provision. This often leads to existing services being stripped back to the metal or ‘prioritised’. On the face of it there appears to be very little space to innovate within the context of how we have come to understand innovation in a modern consumerist world; the public sector simply doesn’t have the resources to buy in the services of the creative industry in order to procure the latest innovation, be it software, products or services. But learning a lesson from Jugaad, this shouldn’t be further from the truth. Now is precisely the time for innovation – frugal, grass roots innovation.
Every one of us has the ability to innovate given the right set of circumstances and the right support. We are all capable of designing solutions to the problems which our lives present us with. When we look to the developing world with its scarce resources and often desperate need, its nearly always a simple yet innovative solution which is having the greatest impact; solutions which are often designed and implemented by local people who have simply got on and done something using the materials that they had available to them.
In our communities there are hidden innovators who don’t know that they have the answer to some of our trickiest social issues – I’m becoming more convinced that the role of social facing designers is to take a leaf out of professor Gupta’s book, get out into our communities and support people to realise their potential.