Frugal innovation is a method not the method

It suddenly hit me this week; frugal innovation is not the panacea to the woes of healthcare. It starts with the needs of poor consumers and devises business models and technologies to meet these needs.  Good business models and technologies can undoubtedly reduce cost, increase access and quality. However, it does this for the needs of the population it was designed for. Consumers of the west have different needs and demands. Their illnesses and problems are different too (although a slow convergence is happening).

This has meant that, most applications from frugal innovation to the west make the current system more efficient. It takes me back to a paper I read last term by Donella Medows where she explores the different places to intervene in a system. At present frugal innovations are primarily dealing with changing parameters, she describes this as;

“Putting different hands on the faucets may change the rate at which the faucets turn, but if they’re the same old faucets, plumbed into the same old system, turned around to the same old system, turned according to the same old information and goals and rules, the system isn’t going to change much” (Meadows 1999)

If the lessons from frugal innovation are to be effective they must be applied at a higher leverage point in the system. Although currently only limited applications of frugal innovation are happening, I am convinced that wider changes can be made. It takes me back to the theme of constraints and sustainability that Ilana Taub (one of our 6 heads) highlighted last week. Current healthcare systems are failing, because they were not designed around the constraints of affordability, access and resources. Frugal innovation can provide huge insights and although these might not solve the entire problem, they will help us (I hope) to move closer to a solution.


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