Frugal Innovation Forum—DAY 1

March 31, 2013 by

A Network of Innovators

Frugal Innovation—overview

Day 1 of our Frugal Innovation Forum sought out best practices from diverse organizations—from Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan to Myanmar and Sri Lanka—grounded in developing human capital, organizing communities, and engaging civic action. While common rhetoric around innovation tends to stress technology advances, Asif Saleh, BRAC’s Senior Director, Strategy, Communications, and Capacity, stressed that “this innovation is not about products, but is a constant process in the organization focused on impact.”

As described by Mushtaque Chowdhury, a more than 30-year veteran of BRAC, BRAC’s own innovation tactics have in fact historically been low-tech, relying on person-to-person delivery mechanisms and economic incentives, from healthcare solutions on oral rehydration therapy and tuberculosis treatment to poultry vaccination transport using a banana for temperature-controlled transport.

This model has largely avoided initial cumbersome, and limiting, strategic program plans for a method of “searching,” says Saleh, for what people need and can afford, and how an entire value chain can be constructed around delivering that to them. 

Both Saleh and Jaideep Prabhu, Jawaharlal Nehru Professor of Indian Business and Enterprise at University of Cambridge, helped define the core issues of frugal innovation mindsets, while posing three questions to wrestle with during the event:

Do we need more innovations, or more scale for those that already exist?

Is scaling always a good thing?

Is frugal always the best way?

Panel participants and other attendees alike presented scale strategies from their own organizational experiences, loosely categorized into a few key areas and case studies below:

Scale Up

Originating at a grassroots level and reaching scale on domestic and property abuse prevention, BRAC’s Human Rights and Legal Aid Services (HRLS) Programme is now the world’s largest NGO-led legal aid program, with 517 legal aid clinics in Bangladesh and 3.7 million graduates of its Human Rights and Legal Education (HRLE) course. More than 162,000 courses have been administered by ein shebikas, ‘Barefoot Lawyers,’ to rural women on basic social mapping, rights advocacy, and violation reporting.

Urban Partnerships for Poverty Reduction (UPPR) seeks to bring that scale beyond local settings and to national government policy decisions by mobilizing slum dwellers in 24 cities across Bangladesh to form clusters of community development groups to identify slum infrastructure needs, qualify vacant land for settlement, and advocate for socio-economic improvements including health and education.

Scale Out

Highlighted by Prabhu, Harish Hande at SELCO sought solar lighting solutions for the 40% of India outside of traditional electricity grids, but quickly discovered that socio-behaviors in specific local contexts needed to be understood before any product uptake, so has trained others in nearby states on his methods.  Hande told Prabhu he’d rather scale out—supporting others to replicate his model on their own—than scale up.

Shandana Khan, CEO of Pakistan’s Rural Support Programs’ Network, highlighted how replication enabled 12 RSPs to develop by activist-led initiatives and reach 32 million members, while the overarching network federates these programs to a national level to seek additional funding and government support.

Scale Smart

“What’s the end purpose of education if we have no employability,” entreated Ubaidur Rob, former Chairman of the Board, Underprivileged Children’s Education Programs (UCEP). In conversation with Safiqul Islam, Director Education Programme, BRAC, and Upali Sedere, former Sri Lankan Ministry of Education, Rob advocated for a stronger relationship between informal BRAC schools (already operating at scale, and costing a mere $35 per student/year) and technical urban training programs, which Sedere added could become lower cost if they adopted either a direct apprenticeship program or technology-enhanced training delivery. With this partnered education model, schools could graduate students from the most marginalized communities into needed trade professions in a mere four years.

Scale Digital

Technology, and digitized data collection and aggregation, presents a beguiling scale opportunity. Bangalore-based Janaagraha has found a simple crowd-sourced methodology for fostering civic engagement around petty and retail corruption. Its platform calculates total bribes paid for public services, segregated by function. Identification of particularly egregious driver’s license practices, for example, led a local police department to contact Janaagraha for help automating its processes to avoid future corruption.

While technology can assist in community-led scaling—or give it a visible online platform—many participants expressed a turgid feeling of “pilot-it is,” where too many technology-charged projects with poor IT infrastructure were prematurely scaled, without a mindset for inter-operability with current or future holistic IT systems.

Hope: Scale Together

“We need COFIs, Communities of Frugal Innovation.” “What’s really important is the entire ecosystem from the government to other organizations.” “We need to learn from best practices and scale them across boundaries, whether geographic or sector.” In hallways, over coffee, and on stage, attendees at this first day of our inaugural Frugal Innovation Forum saw the big picture—the incredible battle we still have to fight in order to combat poverty and build social-minded economic development in South East Asia—and sought networks of likeminded innovators, collaborators, partners, and solution-finding searchers across public, private, and government sectors. We see this moment as an incredible #brightspot that we plan to grow and expand tomorrow—the second and final day of our forum—and in the weeks, months, and years following.

Follow #scalefrugal on Twitter for real-time updates from Day 2.