What can the world learn from 'jugaad' or 'frugal engineering': the trick of getting more out of every single gram of material?
"Frugal engineering is about getting more out of every single gram of material", says Ramesh Mashelkar. "That is not taught in Western society." A different kind of mindset is needed. Thus, Davy Hwang and engineers at GE Bangalore created an ECG machine at one-sixth of the usual cost by stripping out all unnecessary parts and modifying a bus ticket printer to keep development costs down.
For Kannan of Vortex Engineering, part of the mindset involves freeing yourself from what has gone before. "Ignorance is bliss, as they say – but in a good way! So I chose not to look at conventional [ATM] machines. If I did so and thought, where can I save energy, materials and so on, then I'd maybe have come up with something 20% better [in terms of energy use]. I wanted [mine] to be ten times better." His lesson to other innovators? "Don't assume that the features are needed just because they are built like that elsewhere."
Independent Indian innovation consultant Arati Davis – while finding the 'frugal' tag somewhat patronising – believes that smart companies are already cottoning on, seeing the country as a template for the majority economy. "GE realised that what works in India can work for the world. That's why you see the ECG machine – developed for Indian villages – being sold in the US. So if you want to innovate, you don't do it in the US, or the UK [with their relatively specialised markets]", says Davis. "If you design it here, you can sell it anywhere. People are realising India is no longer an outpost market; you need to live life here as much as possible."
International partnerships are a clear way for non-Indians to learn the frugal innovation mindset. Under CEO Carlos Ghosn, Nissan-Renault has embraced the idea, and dispatches key staff to understand and learn from emerging economies. In medical technology, innovators on the prestigious Stanford India Biodesign programme spend half their time in a hospital in Delhi and half in California. This model seems to work: the 'Jaipur Knee' is a $20 prosthetic joint developed by the 2008 team in just 20 weeks, which has since been fitted to thousands of India's million-plus above-knee amputees.
Other models to promote transnational learning exist, from formal government funded collaborative R&D programmes, to the Dishaa Initiative, which brings together future leaders in the UK and India around common challenges. But, as yet, there is no Stanford India Biodesign equivalent for environmental sustainability. That's surely an opportunity waiting to be seized. – Ian Thornton and Martin Wright