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Aravind Eye Care to Jaipur foot—India needs new innovators in frugal innovation

International Desk
|  22 Dec 2021, 20:31
Aravind Eye Care to Jaipur foot—India needs new innovators in frugal innovation
Photo: Collected
 

 

Nesta, a renowned UK based not for profit innovation foundation concluded that India’s distinctive competence lies in frugal innovation in 2012. To make this conclusion, they cited iconic frugal innovations institutions from India such as Aravind Eye Care that provides low-cost, high-quality cataract surgery; the GE MAC 400, a low-cost, portable ECG machine and the Jaipur foot, affordable, individually-fitted prosthetics. Driving these innovations were different approaches: process reconfiguration, frugal engineering and ‘Gandhian innovation’, respectively.

Frugal innovation is a result of process reconfiguration — reviewing the entire process of production or delivery for opportunities to use scarce resources better and reduce costs. Frugal engineering is a clean-sheet approach to production of goods that aims at maximising value for the customers while minimising non-essential costs. C. K. Prahalad and R. A. Mashelkar’s concept of `Ghandhian innovation’ is driven by affordability and sustainability, rather than premium pricing and abundance approach.

Now a decade later Where we are? Has India lived up to its reputation? What does India should do to take frugal innovation to the next level?



Is innovation from Indian industry getting scarce now?

When we recently made a list of  top innovations in india during the 2011-20 decade and  made a comparison with the top innovations in the preceding decade, we found some interesting differences. We didn’t find many visible, big-ticket innovations from large Indian companies or MNC research laboratories in India during 2011-20. Instead, what stood out were public platforms like Aadhaar, the Unified Payment Interface (UPI) and the Government e-Marketplace (GeM); data- and behavioural science-driven innovations like Niti Aayog’s Aspirational Districts Programme (ADP); and a fusion of frugal engineering and virtual intelligence (through digital technologies) manifesting itself in, like Nirmai’s Thermalytix platform that uses a safe and affordable thermal imaging technology, coupled with machine learning to enable early detection of breast cancer. Thousands of Indians have experienced the benefits of Aadhaar in obtaining direct benefit transfers. UPI is probably the easiest, cheapest and reliable peer-to-peer financial transaction mechanism that was our lifeline during the Covid-19 lockdowns.

These findings indicates that India has the potential to secure a leading position in frugal innovation going forward but perhaps in a different way from what Nesta identified a decade ago. The creation of public platforms prevents end-to-end monopolies and enhances the ability of startups to build specialized applications meeting the needs of specific segments of users.

And more interestingly, these public digital platforms have not been built by traditional public sector agencies instead by groups of technical experts on a low-cost, largely pro bono basis. But then the end product is a public good, which is too managed and maintained by a government agency. This innovation in creating the framework or scaffolding  will help next generation to lead this sector.

The next generation of “public platforms” that can enable specific solutions is already on the horizon. These platforms include an account aggregator and the national health stack – the former will facilitate consented sharing of personal financial information in real-time that will help enhance access to credit as well as investment management services; the latter will help access health records and process health insurance claims in both private and public systems.



Solving India’s problems with frugal innovation

Though the locus of frugal innovation has shifted to the government and startups, this needs to be sustained, industry needs to be a partner as well.

India needs more frugal innovation is beyond question. Though absolute poverty might have declined from 1947 to 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic has cause thousands of our citizens to slip backwards. Several reports also indicate increasing income inequality with the top decile accounting for more than half of national income. With our per capita income of about USD 2,000, improving India’s human resource development index is an important goal and possible only with frugal innovation.

To further enhance India’s innovation capability, it needs to solve problems accurately, nurture capabilities in emerging tech areas, create new generation innovators, collaborate in industry academia, enhance R&D and in established firms, and focus on india’s commitments to climate change.

Source: The Print

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