Professor Anil Gupta of the Indian Institute of Management asks what the mainstream can learn from the margins.
Innovation can spring from the margins as well as the centre. Take the example of a bamboo windmill which was developed by two Muslim farmers in north-east India. It cost around $100 and was originally used to pump water from a small padi field.
Now it's been adopted by Gujarati salt workers, who are some of the poorest people in the state, to pump brine water. This is a task which they used to accomplish with counterfeit diesel engines burning huge amounts of fuel, at a cost of around $1,000 each year. But now they've adapted the windmill to make it more powerful and suitable for the work, and it has transformed their lives. It costs around $1,200, and does the job much better.
"The beauty of it is simplicity in design"
Our formal training constrains our minds; it makes us eliminate certain frugal choices which are actually very useful and sustainable. For example, most windmills have gearboxes, because we are conditioned to believe that maximising output for a range of time is something everyone must do. This one does not, because it doesn't matter how fast or slow the water comes out. If it takes two days instead of one, it is not a problem. And the gearbox is the part which usually needs the most maintenance.
"The mainstream can learn from the margins"
All the talk now is of 'customer connect', 'user-driven innovation', 'co-creation', and all that. But really very little of this is actually happening. Instead, [mainstream actors] tend to go to communities with a worked-out design, and say, 'can you help us improve it slightly?'
They don't say, 'do you have a design which we could help you improve?' But there are signs this is starting to change. Some companies, such as GE, are at least expressing interest in designs from the margins – like the manually powered wheelchair which can climb stairs.
"Scale is not necessarily the Holy Grail"
There is increasingly an argument that, unless you can scale up an innovation, it has no legitimacy. This ignores the fact that some innovations, especially those which help marginal communities, may remain in a niche – but that doesn't mean they don't have value. Imagine [rather] a future which combines a much more decentralised model of production and consumption, but using the best of modern technology and communications. You could have open-source content available for downloading from 150,000 rural post offices across the country, and see the ingenuity of minds at the margin at work as a result.
Photo: Honey Bee Team