"Frugal innovation in sustainability thinking: from niche to mainstream?"

On May 9th the Centre for Innovation Research hosted Peter Knorringa at Lund University for a presentation at the CIRCLE Seminar, titled "Frugal innovation in sustainability thinking: from niche to mainstream?"

Departing from the legitimacy challenges facing frugal innovation, Peter unraveled how the Norm Life Cycle framework can serve as a tool to overcome these obstacles, change norms and attitudes towards frugal innovation, and bring it into the mainstream of sustainability thinking.

Legitimacy challenges that are encountered, include exploitation by multinational corporations, the perception of being temporary solutions for public utilities like electricity and water rather than structural remedies, and being viewed as inferior substitutes for those unable to afford conventional alternatives. The Norm Life Cycle framework could be utilized as a means to surmount these barriers, particularly regarding the process of mainstreaming innovative practices. Just as norms evolve over time, from emergence to internalization, frugal innovations also undergo stages from ideation to widespread adoption.

Visual Life Cycle

Norm entrepreneurs play a pivotal role in driving this change, challenging conventional practices and paving the way for acceptance. Facilitators, including researchers, educators, early adopters, and policy makers, collaborate to amplify the visibility and impact of frugal innovations, ultimately aiming for norm cascading and internalization. By understanding these dynamics and fostering strategic alliances, the frugal innovation discourse can transition from emergence to widespread acceptance, fostering a vision of "frugal prosperity for all."

In his presentation, Peter explained that mainstreaming frugal innovation can follow two trajectories.

  • Frugal innovations for poorer consumers (Enforced Frugality)
  • Frugal innovations for early adopters (Voluntary Frugality) 

Early adopters offer an interesting alternative route from norm emergence to norm cascading as they make frugal innovations fashionable, demonstrating a lifestyle that others can then aspire to. These early adopters tend to be young, rich and well-educated, and they demonstrate a sustainable lifestyle and make it fashionable. This matters because the more others aspire to such lifestyles the faster the decline in prices and the greater the affordability by the not-so-well off. 

Shifting the focus from the production aspect of frugal innovation, future research should also focus on the implementation of "voluntary frugality" in our consumer behavior. This entails going beyond the simplistic idea that consuming less is the sole path to sustainability; instead, we must adopt a different approach to consumption.

The seminar concluded with an engaging Q&A session, where participants discussed the desirability and practicalities of mainstreaming local innovations and the intersections between the frugal innovation literature and adjacent research on degrowth, the circular economy, and social innovation.

CIRCLE is the Centre for Innovation Research at Lund University. It functions as incubator, coordinator, and implementer of innovation research across faculties. Their aim is to understand and explain how innovation can contribute to a good society and tackle societal challenges such as economic crises, climate change or the increased globalization of economic activities. 

Lund presentation Knorringa

More information
What can de frugal innovation debate learn from the Norm Life Cycle Debate