Frugal innovation: challenging the orthodox European philanthropic model of funding innovation

Clara Maspons, Partner Relations Coordinator at Women Political Leaders, discusses the potential of “frugal innovation” for European philanthropy in stimulating social value.

by Clara Maspons; Partner Relations Coordinator at Women Political Leaders.

European philanthropy has the potential to stimulate social value by exploring innovation initiatives that go beyond the traditional European unidirectional model. One such initiative is frugal innovation: an approach proven to drive change in developing countries, but which could also radically alter conventional modes of European philanthropy if foundations are willing to explore and invest in it.

Let’s get back to basics, where less is more and the focus is on the fundamentals

In Bengali, the word ‘Jugaad’ means ‘to do more with less’. But rather than simply making do with less, sometimes the key is to do better with less. European foundations are quickly enthused by innovative ideas and projects, yet many of these require significant financial and time investment and can often under-deliver. Has anyone paused to question whether this is the kind of innovation they should invest in? Let’s reconsider the very nature of these investments. Why not shift the focus of philanthropy and start investing in frugal innovation projects?

Such an approach is diametrically opposed to the traditional model of innovation funded by European philanthropy and questions its unidirectional plan of action. It challenges the very conception of typical philanthropy projects that rely on ample resources for innovation development, deploy more functions than are necessary, and set up stringent eligibility approval procedures.

Breaking new ground with limited resources

Frugal innovation is the ability to create more economic and social value using fewer resources (Radjou, 2014). Its conceptual framework calls for attention to more plural sources of innovation, aiming to prioritise flexibility and agility rather than structure. Basu et al. (2013) further strengthen this insight by introducing four critical differentiating factors from the traditional innovation model: driver, process, core capabilities, and location

Conventional innovation is a dominant perspective in which European philanthropy has traditionally invested. This type of thinking tends to focus on assets and is delivered through a top-down process, where design and desirability are the core capabilities. Conversely, the context of urgent necessity in which frugality operates represents its main driving force, which is confronted with a bottom-up approach based on functionality, simplicity and adaptability

A major phenomenon in developing countries, frugal innovation may present a holistic, horizontal and disruptive approach to philanthropy. Its functionalities are adjusted to the needs it responds to by using minimum resources efficiently, promoting social inclusion, interconnecting key subjects and minimising the impact of human activity on the environment. In short, these are low-tech and low-cost solutions with a significant social impact. 

Powerless fridges (which would be of considerable interest for maintaining vaccination cold chain campaigns in resource-poor countries); a 20-cent hand-powered blood centrifuge or an app for tracking and identifying mosquitoes (vectors for many important diseases) are just a few examples of the potential of frugal innovation that European philanthropy would be wise to explore. 

A game-changing strategy: New methodologies with impact-oriented interventions

Many innovative initiatives funded by European foundations remain ill-suited to the realities, existing expertise and capacities of recipient countries. So why not try to fund projects based on innovation models from these countries? Indeed, why not support developing countries to become a systematic source of global innovation?

The key strategy may reside in adopting a bidirectional and equitable approach that can generate a twofold impact. What if innovations that respond to needs in developing countries can also be imported to Europe when such needs are aligned? For both scenarios to occur, European foundations are required to work on the design and implementation of new organisational models of community engagement and shared-value solutions.

Projects of this scope call for the adoption of nimble methodologies in project development, substantial cost reduction, a focus on core functionalities, and performance-optimised results with an impact-oriented intervention. Along with a bottom-up approach, such considerations account for crucial factors that enable this type of innovation to fit into the European philanthropic model.

A promising new role for Europe’s philanthropic organisations

But what if European foundations themselves, challenging the traditional top-down eurocentric approach, give space to existing local knowledge capacities and act as know-how transfer agents?

There is certainly limited knowledge about which structures, activities and capacities necessary to optimise funding or successfully transfer such innovations to the European context. But what if European foundations themselves, challenging the traditional top-down eurocentric approach, give space to existing local knowledge capacities and act as know-how transfer agents?

Through their international initiatives, it is possible to quickly identify particular clusters of needs, observing what solutions – effective or not – are being delivered by local communities.

Given their corresponding methodologies for impact analysis, foundations could not only assess the feasibility and potential funding for solutions, but also explore whether a meaningful replication of evidence-based interventions is likely to be achieved in other contexts, or even in other sectors.

Frugal innovation can be both promoted from a policy perspective and integrated into an institutional framework due to its capacity to promote sustainable socio-economic outcomes. Yet another window of opportunity for the European philanthropic network emerges. Not only does it have the potential to fund frugal projects in developing countries, and/or transfer its know-how for adaptation to the European context, but it can also finance its dissemination in Europe and maximise social inclusion and accessibility.

Reskilling and Upskilling European Foundations competencies: A challenge ahead in promoting sustainable and increased resilience capacities.

Investing in this model is perhaps what the European philanthropic network has been missing to catalyse evidence-based sustainable change. The solutions it offers – simple, accessible and affordable – are capable of providing short-term answers to the most pressing challenges, thus providing foundations with the necessary conditions to focus on developing strategies to prevent them from happening in the long term.

Investing in this model is perhaps what the European philanthropic network has been missing to catalyse evidence-based sustainable change. The solutions it offers – simple, accessible and affordable – are capable of providing short-term answers to the most pressing challenges, thus providing foundations with the necessary conditions to focus on developing strategies to prevent them from happening in the long term.

Will European philanthropy be able to carry out this approach successfully? Will it be able to accommodate the logic of doing better with less? It is a shift in long-established strategies of prioritising, designing and implementing. To undertake a shift towards frugal innovation requires recycling existing expertise and readjusting priorities of European foundations.

dsc6523 claramaspons picture edited

Clara Maspons; Partner Relations Coordinator at Women Political Leaders.

Bibliography:

Ahmad, Saleha, “Frugal creativity: a new conceptualization as planned behavior”. International Journal of Innovation Science. June 2021. Accessed June 16, 2021. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/352566331_COVID-19_pandemic_and_Innovation _Activities_in_The_Global_Airline_Industry_A_Review

Basu, R. et al. “Frugal innovation: core competencies to address global sustainability”. Journal of Management for Global Sustainability, p. 63–80. Accessed June 14, 2021.

Directorate-General for Research and Innovation (European Commission) , Fraunhofer ISI , Nesta. “Study on Frugal Innovation and reengineering of traditional techniques”. April 25, 2021.Accessed June 14, 2021. https://op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/20d6095a-2a44-11e7-ab65-01aa75ed 71a1

European Environmental Agency (EEA). “More from less – Material Resource Efficiency in Europe”.EEA Report No 10/2016. June 9, 2019. Accessed June 14, 2021. https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/more-from-less

Hossain, Mokter, “Frugal innovation: Conception, development, diffusion, and outcome”. Journal of Cleaner Production. DOI:10.1108/IJIS-11-2020-0256. April, 2020. Accessed June 15, 2021.

Kubota, Taylor. “A Lab Takes a Frugal-Science Approach to Covid-19”. May 2021. Accessed June 15, 2021.https://engineering.stanford.edu/magazine/article/lab-takes-frugal-science-approach-covid-1 9

Narváez-Mena, Horacio; Pansera, Mario; Rivas, Roberto. “Frugalidad e innovación popular: Revista Iberoamericana de Ciencia, Tecnología y Sociedad – CTS, v. 12, n. 35, p. 130-155, 2017. Accessed June 14, 2021.

McKinsey&Company, “Reimaging European Philanthropy”. June 2020. Accessed June 18, 2021. https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/Industries/Public%20and%20Social%20 Sector/Our%20Insights/Reimagining%20European%20philanthropy/Reimagining-european- philanthropy-vF2.pdf

Ojha, Abhoy. “MNCs in India: focus on frugal innovation. Journal of Indian Business Research, v. 6, n. 1, p. 4-28, 2014. Accessed June 14, 2021.

Radjou, Navi. “Creative Problem-Solving in the Face of Extreme Limits”. TEDGLOBAL, October 2014. Accessed June 13th. https://www.ted.com/talks/navi_radjou_creative_problem_solving_in_the_face_of_extreme_li mits

Rosca, Eugenia; Arlon, Marlen; Bendul, Julia C. “Business models for sustainable innovation – an empirical analysis of frugal products and services”. Journal of Cleaner Production, v.162, n. 20, p. 130-145, 2017. Accessed June 17, 2021.

UNCTAD. “Powerless fridge shows potential of ‘frugal innovation’. July 2018. https://unctad.org/news/powerless-fridge-shows-potential-frugal-innovation

Ventura Koerich, Graziele, and Éverton Luís Pellizzaro de Lorenzi Cancellier. “Frugal Innovation: origins, evolution and future perspectives”. October 2019, Scielo Brazil. Accessed June 13, 2021. https://www.scielo.br/j/cebape/a/K38LzCKjPFyRKPNyJgyFZMR/?lang=en#

Other articles from Next Philanthropy

  • Why fund climate justice?

    Why fund climate justice?

    Kristina Johansson, Founder of Solberga Foundation, shares her personal story on becoming a climate activist and establishing a foundation addressing climate crisis. She also reflects on the role philanthropy can play in tackling climate change and the need to trust grassroots movements.

    Read more