Field Notes: Scaling Down Innovation for Bigger Impact

When it comes to innovation in international development, Sarika Bansal argues that “less is more” in having impact, once several critical conditions are met.


The increasingly popular concept of “frugal innovation” was coined to describe the practice of reducing the cost and complexity of producing an item in order to better meet the needs of the have-nots. Sarika Bansal, director of Partnerships of the Solutions Journalism Network, talks on NYT’s Opinionator about why frugal innovation will play a bigger role in international development and how direct engagement with local communities during the design process of frugal innovation can better address critical issues around the globe. The concept of having greater impact with less money and resources but more precise local targets seems obvious, but can be challenging to put into practice. The problems that international development aims to solve exist within a wide variety of cultural and social contexts, so the capacity to tailor an innovative solution to a particular problem is essential. This “less is more” philosophy of frugal innovation, suggests Bansal, has to start conceptually:

Of course, not every frugal innovation is successful. For every cost-effective eye surgery, there are dozens of flailing socially conscious enterprises. So what does it take for an inexpensive, seemingly rudimentary innovation to take hold and potentially improve the lives of millions of people? What do successful frugal innovations have in common? For one, there is tremendous value in customizing a product to fit cultural norms. Even in the simplest of products, the smallest details can make a notable difference in their acceptability. …Beyond cultural sensitivity and training, many successful frugal innovations directly engage communities during the design process. Amy Smith, founder of M.I.T.’s D-Lab, which creates technologies for the poor, challenges frugal innovators to think creatively about this. Instead of designing products for the world’s poor, and having them be the passive recipients of innovation, she advocates turning them into active creators of technology. She calls this approach “creative capacity building.” “It requires a huge shift in the way we think of international development,” Smith said at a lecture at Wellesley College. “It means that we need to think of poor people not as vulnerable, but as capable. We have to think of it not as a billion mouths to feed, but two billion hands to engage.”

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