Frugal Innovation Forum Day 2: Ambition without borders

April 2, 2013 by


A week before the Frugal Innovation Forum, I came across the Ted Talk by Dan Palotta that criticized development for rewarding frugality (i.e. low rates of overhead) instead of ambition and big ideas. This is one reason why, in his opinion, progress has been slow to find solutions to address social issues. Jaideep Prabhu referenced Palotta’s criticisms in his opening remarks on Day 1, again echoing the potential trade-offs between frugality and risk-taking.

On Day 2, BRAC’s founder and chairperson, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, offered reflections on BRAC’s trajectory to scale and systems for innovation. Many organizations do not scale, he explained, simply because they were not ambitious enough in the impact that they pursued. It was the mindset that was the first barrier and one that urgently needed to be changed. 

“Every problem has a solution. You just need to think about a problem for long enough to find it,” he continued, citing the process of building BRAC’s non-formal primary school model by picking best practices internationally while insisting that the cost of the whole package per child per year be no more than the $20 that the government could spend at that time. Pressure makes diamonds, and frugality—a crucial ingredient for scale—can be a key part of the ambition, if your dream is big enough.

fif1Participants seemed hungry to take on challenges and embrace novel approaches to change—looking beyond the borders of their expertise to see what they could glean from others.

Day 2 was conceived as a day to structure peer-to-peer sharing and learning, based on the collective interests of the group. In our efforts to keep the event demand-driven, we chose the presenters for breakout sessions by vote, and were rewarded by really fascinating presentations from groups like DigitalGreen, Janagraaha and others. Based on their input from Day 1, we broke out into groups for surprisingly intense, grounded discussions on the following topics:

  • Micropensions for the poor
  • Scaling social enterprises
  • Closing the gap between how students are assessed and what employers need
  • Incorporating ICT into governance issues in health and primary education
  • Incorporating environmental sustainability with social structures
  • Instilling a culture of innovation among the civil servants of Bangladesh
  • Creating a platform and culture of collaboration for poverty alleviation
  • Capturing and applying tacit knowledge
  • Supporting the first 1,000 days of life for better education
  • Processes for product iteration to improve market fit
  • Innovations in cost-effective evaluation
  • Incubating youth-led initiatives for scaling and sustainability
  • Incentivizing frontline workers and volunteers

The list demonstrates the diversity of people that this event managed to bring together—people who are comfortable crossing the normal boundaries of sector and specialty, and trying to apply what works in one setting to another.

I heard Devika Sarin, from ICT4D firm Dimagi, caution organizations against adopting new technologies unless they were willing to go the whole way, a refreshingly candid admission in the midst of such hype around technology. Several more small discussions emerged organically, based on the morning’s presentations and discussions from the prior day.

I saw two participants from India pull one of my colleagues from BRAC’s Human Rights and Legal Aid Services program to an empty table and pepper her with questions about their legal education program. Meanwhile, Anjali Sastry from MIT’s Sloan School of Management brainstormed with Dr. Babar Kabir (BRAC senior director) and me about clever ways to identify opportunities for process innovations in data collection and management.

fif2In the closing sessions, Sir Fazle reminded us that scale is not just about innovation, it is sometimes about putting into place the seemingly boring structures that make things work. He said, “Scaling up has its own logic—you need to routinize essential tasks, disregard tasks that are inessential, and create efficiencies.”

Dr. Mahabub Hossain, BRAC executive director, stressed that innovation begins with a mentality that can be retained even as an organization scales and matures. “At BRAC, we want to stay young forever. To always learn, to think outside of the box, to give space to leaders to think and use their full talents for the organization.”

The forum’s greatest value was perhaps not answering questions, but challenging assumptions and reframing mindsets. Sabhanaz Diya, of One Degree Initiative, reflected, “To be honest, I’ve never really understood the value of experience, until coming here and listening to people who have so much of it. It’s really made me appreciate how much you can learn by listening.”

The takeaways are simple concepts, but important insights. We should be more ambitious, more confident that solutions are out there and more appreciative of the value in actively searching for them, particularly within the region.

Many thanks to everyone who joined us for the event! Additional resources will be posted on the BRAC website in the coming weeks, and we look forward to continuing the discussion on Twitter.

The BRAC Social Innovation Lab team (l-r): Amanda Misiti, Ishtiaque Hussain, Tasmia Rahman, and Maria May.

A part of the BRAC Social Innovation Lab team (l-r): Amanda Misiti, Ishtiaque Hussain, Tasmia Rahman, and Maria May.