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Frugal innovation: India, France can lead the way

In this guest post, Navi Radjou draws from his experience at a hands-on education and problem-solving school in Mumbai. He points out that France’s strong science and engineering capabilities, combined with the Indian concept of jugaad, or frugal ingenuity, could help solve problems that threaten all of humanity.

Navi Radjou

A recent Gallup International Association poll rates French President Emmanuel Macron and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the two of the most favoured world leaders. They have a historic opportunity to use their huge popularity and goodwill at home and abroad to heal our fractured world. They can do so by bolstering co-innovation between India and France — through top-down R&D partnerships such as the International Solar Alliance as well as bottom-up collaborative initiatives like the STEAM School.

By bringing together Indian and French engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, designers, artists and business leaders, the two countries can create solutions to what I call “problems without borders”: social inequality, global warming, chronic diseases, water and food scarcity.
In December 2017, I attended the Indo-French STEAM School in Mumbai — which shows how co-innovation can have a major positive impact worldwide. The 10-day programme was co-organized, like every year, by the French Embassy in India, the Paris-based Center for Research and Interdisciplinarity, and Maker’s Asylum, a community space in Mumbai. The programme enables STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) education through hands-on problem-solving based on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

100 participants, mostly from France and India — architects, designers, artists, engineers, academics, and students — formed 19 teams to design a product each to tackle one of five specific SDGs in the Indian context: health, education, water/sanitation, energy, and sustainable cities. Over the course of the programme, the participants developed working prototypes of their products.

Participants at the STEAM School 2017

These four products I liked best harnessed frugal innovation to devise simple and cost-effective solutions to major socio-economic and ecological problems:

  • BAT:  a low-cost wrist-wearable to aid the visually impaired. According to a Lancet study, 36 million people in the world are blind, a number set to increase to 115 million by 2050. In India alone, 8.8 million citizens suffer from blindness and nearly 48 million have moderate and severe vision impairment, the largest number for any country. BAT, fitted with a Six Axis feedback mechanism, can make life easier for such people while they navigate public spaces, by vibrating to alert them of obstacles.
  • The SADA Kit:  A portable solution to prevent water-borne health epidemics caused by open-air defecation in rural India. 2.5 billion in the world still lack access to toilets. 300 million Indian women and girls are affected by it. The kit aims to improve the health, safety, and dignity of these women. It comprises of a lightweight portable toilet with a pop-up privacy shield, a waste disposal bag, a small wearable light and whistle, soap, and sanitary pads for women.
  • BIJLI:  a low-cost energy generation device that can be retrofitted to bicycles. It transforms kinetic energy from the wheels into electric energy that can be stored in a battery pack or can be used to charge small electronic gadgets like mobile phones. The device can be used on the go or while the bicycle is stationary. Distributed energy solutions like BIJLI can be a boon for the 300 million Indians who live with little or no electricity today.
  • WASTED: a smart waste segregation bin that helps spread awareness of how much waste we generate. By turning the process of segregation into a game and connecting sensors in the actual bin to an app, it enables users to track and compare waste statistics with friends and neighbors. The idea is to “nudge” people and societies towards zero waste. India generates over 100,000 metric tons of solid waste each day, higher than any other country. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that by adopting the circular economy principles—through reuse and recycling of waste and resources—India could reap $624 billion in annual benefits in 2050 and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 44%.

“The goal of STEAM School isn’t to solve the SDGs in 10 days, but to teach how to solve them,” says Vaibhav Chhabra, founder of Maker’s Asylum. “STEAM also teaches empathy and tolerance to participants. They learn to transcend their differences, respect each other, and find unity in a shared purpose. They become globally-conscious problem-solvers.”

Vaibhav is right. I interacted with French students from CRI, EM Lyon Business School, and Institut Mines-Télécom at STEAM School, who had developed greater respect for India and its culture by working together with Indians. A Hindi saying captures the power of such synergies: Ek Aur Ek Gyarah Hote Hain, or One and One Equals Eleven. France’s strong science and engineering capabilities, combined with the Indian concept of jugaad, or frugal ingenuity, could help us solve problems that threaten all of humanity.

As a French-Indian, I am thrilled to be part of this process. I left India in 1989 to study in France. During the 80s and 90s, France and India were relatively closed to the outside world. Cooperation between both countries was also limited. I long dreamed of a day when India and France would team up to create solutions without borders. Now my dream is finally coming true.

The theme of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2018 in Davos was “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World.” You can’t fix a fractured and conflict-ridden world with the competitive zero-sum mindset that has long dominated world affairs. Instead, it’s time to adopt the cooperative “1+1=11” formula. Macron and Modi can show the way.

[A longer version of this piece was first published by the World Economic Forum. Navi Radjou is a fellow at Cambridge University’s Judge Business School. He is the coauthor of Jugaad Innovation (2012), From Smart to Wise (2013), and Frugal Innovation (2015).]

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