Research and innovation are at the core of Europe’s economy and vital for a sustainable society. Europe is renowned for its excellent scientific and technological research, which has consistently been one of the EU’s top priorities. However, after decades with an historically unprecedented degree of stability, prosperity and comfort, Europe had to face two major disruptions in a short time: the financial crisis and the covid-19 pandemic. One can argue that Europe is in need of an approach to innovation that focuses on delivering affordable, fit for purpose and easy to use innovations and technologies to broad sections of the population.
Frugal Innovation offers solutions for the challenges that emerge, this article sets out why Frugal Innovation needs to be anchored in the EU’s future research and innovation landscape.
What is frugal innovation?
According to The Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa (CFIA), a multi-disciplinary academic research centre part of the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Universities Alliance, Frugal Innovation aims to offer smart, simple and affordable solutions. It starts from the identification of needs and bottlenecks, especially for underprivileged sections in society.
The challenge is to provide value sensitive innovations without sacrificing user value. Such frugal innovations need to fit local circumstances and cultures in order to be successful for both suppliers and customers. In practice, this means that several stakeholders need to work together in so-called polycentric networks. A network in which entrepreneurs, designers, financiers, manufacturers and distributors co-produce successful frugal technologies and innovations.
The approach focuses on creating “more value for more people from fewer resources”. Much of the current academic discussion on frugal innovation finds its roots in developing and emerging economies like India. However, more and more business leaders and researchers find that it is important for Europe too. Frugal innovation offers new opportunities to make the most of European technological expertise, to address European societal challenges and to better meet customer needs in home markets.
Frugal Innovation in Europe
The EU’s continuing aim is to find research and innovation solutions that will help foster the next great transition in the European economy and society to secure a sustainable future that enables the wellbeing of citizens. When shaping the future research and innovation landscape, Frugal Innovation can be anchored in EU policies in order to bring about such transitions in vital areas of science, engineering, medicine and wider social and environmental concerns.
CFIA’s director Professor Peter Knorringa explains that one must understand the European system first before integrating the frugal approach in Europe. ‘Few would disagree that the present European production and innovation system, inter country variations notwithstanding, relies extensively on super-specialization of work and an overwhelming reliance on strongly protocolised ‘hard scientific evidence. Together, they are supposed to uphold quality and transparency in economic decision making, even at the cost of being expensive and sticky, i.e slow in its ability to adapt to changing circumstances. While specialization and protocols are in themselves indispensable and desirable elements in a modern economy, too much of it creates its own challenges’.
Knorringa and frugal innovation research partner Bhaduri argue that the excessive institutional reliance on super-specialization and protocol driven scientific evidence in all its decision-making processes can, at least partly, explain why Europe finds it so difficult to predict disruptions and is not able to quickly adapt its institutional machineries in the face of a crisis1. A remedy in their view lies in reducing over-formalization in decision-making processes and creating more space for experimentation and judicious improvisation. These steps can help Europe to adapt quicker to future contingencies2. Read Knorringa and Bhaduri’s full argument here.
How to anchor Frugal Innovation in the EU agenda?
Knorringa and Bhaduri have been exploring how to anchor Frugal Innovation into the EU's new policy agenda for research and Innovation. After building on the interest generated by the Affordable Tech session at the R&I Days last fall, RTD’s Innovation Ecosystems unit hosted a Library talk and workshop with colleagues from across Commission services earlier this year.
At the request of the DG for Research and Innovation, Knorringa and Bhaduri published a policy paper, which offers building blocks suggesting where and how frugal innovation could be integrated into EU policy. They focus on possible connections with the ‘Mission-Oriented Research & innovation’ program (Horizon Europe) that has been designed by the DG for Research and Innovation, and builds on the EU scoping Study on frugal innovation and the reengineering of traditional techniques (2017). Three key types of frugal innovation processes are introduced, driven respectively by firms, NGOs and local communities. The paper shows how these three distinct processes link up with different parts of the EU policy agenda and explore how a frugal innovation angle could enrich some of the main EU policy instruments. They furthermore raise the idea that a more fundamental rethinking of future innovation trajectories might be needed to effectively address global challenges.
Read the full policy paper here.
Reassessing business models in favour of more accessible solutions
‘In the face of growing inequality, scarcity of resources and increasingly high costs - and with high-tech solutions now more readily accessible than ever - the conventional business model must be reassessed in favour of more accessible innovative solutions’, says Knorringa. ‘For example, frugal solutions are at the heart of the circular economy, combining data, sensors and smartphones to improve energy use, recycling and reduction of food waste’. Read more on frugal solutions here
‘More high-tech innovation pathways and frugal innovation pathways do not compete, but policy makers need to know why and how they are supporting which kinds of pathways as they require distinct policy support and impact evaluation approaches. Transdisciplinary, systemic innovation approaches are needed. We need stakeholders within industry, research and policy to work in polycentric networks to arrive at successful frugal technologies and innovations’.