Radha Basu shares insights on frugal innovation

Last week, the Centre had the pleasure of hosting Radha Basu at SBS as part of our year-long Speaker Series.  She spoke to us about her work in frugal innovation, and if you are new to the term (like many of us were) it’s a simple, brilliant concept.

Rather than adapting products for emerging economies, why not reverse the  process of innovation? Take the needs of the poor, and design technology that works for them.  Strip it down, make it rough and tough, relish constraints, and most importantly, rethink the entire process, business model and distribution channel with an eye towards the emerging market consumer.  The social and environmental impacts are massive, not to mention the economic opportunities for companies to seize this burgeoning market.  (Need proof of frugal innovation’s rise?: see this feature by the Economist.)

Radha, a former Hewitt Packard executive  in India and now a social entrepreneur,  is no stranger to the potential of technology to develop economies and change people’s lives.  As faculty at Santa Clara University, she is developing the Frugal Innovation Lab to channel the  expertise of faculty and students from engineering, business, science and entrepreneurship into practical solutions for emerging markets.  This is a real feat in multi-disciplinary collaboration (have you ever tried to herd siloed academics from across a university?!) and solid evidence of how forward-thinking educational institutions can throw their hat in the ring to not just think, but to do.

Radha’s insights were plentiful, but some of her top thoughts:

Innovate frugally

Core competencies of engineering for the developing world include:

  • Ruggedness
  • Affordability
  • Simplification
  • Adaptation
  • Use of local materials/manufacturing
  • Lightweight
  • Simple user-centric design
  • Green technology

Break all the rules

By taking the needs of poor consumers as a starting point and working backwards, a new paradigm for inclusive growth with rural customers is arising.  Radha gave examples of a rice husk water filter that provides clean, bacteria-free water, an eye care system that provides preventative care to all at a low-cost rate, and an electrocardiogram that fits in a backpack and reduces patient cost to $1 per test.

My favorite example is Nokia’s  Bicycle Charger Kit that clips to bike handlebars and uses your own pedal power to charge your phone, also providing light to cycle in the dark.  It’s penetrating the rural Indian market, and leaves me wondering when I can get my hands on one.

This is a massive business opportunity

The BOP market continues to be a breeding ground for disruptive innovation and market insight.  Multinationals expect 50% of growth in next ten years from developing markets whose economies are driven by adoption of  technologies such as mobile, renewable energies, clean water, mobile banking and innovations in last mile health and agriculture.

Seems as if Radha and her frual innovation team are on to something big.

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