Learning from Need: The Rise of Frugal and Flexible Innovation

"By seeing how the economically poor innovate to survive their conditions, we can make our own lives better"
clay horse sculptures

The essentials

The economically poor have surprising and ingenious ways of getting more out of less, and these frugal and sensible innovations need to be widely shared and adopted, says Anil Gupta, founder of the Honey Bee Network and Professor of the Indian Institute of Management. Gupta was speaking at a Queen's School of Business conference.

Every six months, Anil Gupta and his colleagues walk through the poorest districts of rural India on a shodh yatra — a quest for new knowledge and grassroots creativity at its source. “In summer we go to the places that are hot, and in winter we go to the places that are cold,” said Gupta during a Queen's School of Business Centre For Responsible Leadership presentation.

“For so long, we have assumed that people who are poor economically are also poor intellectually, culturally, institutionally, ethically,” said Gupta. “Nothing could be farther from the truth.”

He believes this misconception is ingrained in our societies, that people in developed countries are hardwired to view the poor and children as consumers of aid and knowledge rather than providers of sustainable innovation. But they are often exactly that.

In 1988, Gupta, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management, founded the Honey Bee Network in India on the premise that intellectuals, policy makers, innovators, and non-governmental organizations do not spend enough time cross-pollinating ideas, and that genius arising on the margins of societies often dies there.

In the 24 years since it was established, the Honey Bee Network has documented more than 160,000 inventive practices and products. Its database includes information on who originally developed these ideas so that the creators can receive a share of the benefits that others gain as a result. The Honey Bee Network spreads these ideas through its newsletter, which is published in English and seven Indian languages. The network has a presence in 75 countries.

Inspired adaptations

In his Queen’s presentation, Gupta recounted how, during one shodh yatra, he stopped in a village in the poor Bankura district in the east of India and encountered an arrangement of large terracotta horses under a tree. When asked why the beautiful statues were left out instead of being sold for profit, an old potter explained that they were not merely the most beautiful works, but were the very best ones in every way, “so that when our children pass by on this road, they know what the current standard of excellence is — and they have to do better.”

“Here is a community of potters which believes in creating open source standards of excellence,” said Gupta, “and a desire for the younger generation to do better than what they have done.”

The basic need to sustain community, culture, economy, environment, or simply the “self” through adversity gives rise to countless innovations. A man from northern India, for example, found a way to prevent fungus and bacteria from damaging the 30-year-old walls of his house. His simple mixture of jute fibre, clay, and other straws proved as effective as the far more expensive modern technique involving a suspension of nano particles of titanium dioxide in paint.

A woman in Mizoram, in east India, had developed an ingenious method of trapping cast-off heat from her kitchen fireplace — on three tiers — and using it to dry large quantities of grain. When she threshed, it took considerably less energy to get rice out of the husks. “She has been converting this waste heat into a drudgery-rationing technology,” said Gupta. “If you want to learn about how energy should be utilized, there’s a lesson or two that we can learn from that. … Shouldn’t we rethink the design of our own kitchens?”

He added, “By seeing how the economically poor innovate to survive in their conditions, we can make our own lives better by learning from them. Our cost of production can go down and our infrastructure can become more sustainable.”

Innovations such as these reflect the greatest strengths of design in nature: frugality, multi-functionality, diversity, and resilience, said Gupta. Frugality is especially important.

“People are now realizing that we have lived beyond our means,” he said. “We are going to stretch ourselves and try to redefine the economic system of our societies. We will have to learn to innovate frugally.”

Nick Walker

Smith School of Business
Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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