What can the frugal innovation debate learn from the Norm Life Cycle debate?

By Hubert Schmitz and Peter Knorringa


There is a strong case for making innovations more frugal. The world needs innovations which are sparing in the use of resources and affordable by poor people. They matter especially in poor countries but also for people in rich countries, as frugal innovations can help us to push towards a more sustainable future. Frugal innovations are therefore relevant for most of the world’s population. The problem is that frugal innovation so far remains a fringe phenomenon.  The question addressed in this blog is how frugal innovation can become the norm rather than remain the exception.  

To address this question, we draw on the Norm Life Cycle framework because it helps us to unpack the time dimension. It creates the mental space for detecting insights into process and sequence. This blog shows how the Norm Life Cycle framework helps to understand how idealistic and committed actors – going against the tide - can bring a new norm towards a tipping point. Once it reaches this tipping point, it starts to become the new normal. Then also those who earlier dismissed this new norm will start to adhere to the new norm, even if with fits and starts. A final stage is when such a new norm becomes internalised in a society through policy and law making. 

Norm life cycle annotated
Norm life cycle based on illustration  in "Norm creation, spreading and emergence: A survey of simulation models of norms in multi-agent systems"

In what follows we present the Norm Life Cycle framework in more detail and then indicate how it can move us forward.   

Three stages 

The framework was developed by Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink in their article International norm dynamics and political change (https://doi.org/10.1162/002081898550789). It investigates how the norms for what is acceptable behaviour in a society change over time. Its key propositions are as follows. In the first stage of norm emergence, altruism, empathy, idealism and commitment are seen as the main motives for so called ‘norm entrepreneurs’ to push for a new norm. This new norm goes against the tide of ‘how things have always been done’ and is initially dismissed by mainstream stakeholders as going against common sense and the interests of the elites, being impractical, going to drive up costs, etc. An often-used example is the abolition of child labour. While child labour was once considered a normal and convenient practice in many societies in earlier centuries, at some point ‘enlightened’ activists began to rally against child labour. In the early stages these activists fought an uphill battle, and it took them lots of effort and perseverance to get the upper hand and reach what in the Norm Life Cycle framework is called the tipping point when such a new norm becomes mainstreamed.  

This is called the second stage of norm cascading where it becomes ‘the right thing to do’ for more mainstream stakeholders beyond the idealistic norm entrepreneurs. Even less convinced stakeholders may start claiming they adopt the new norm in order to minimize the risk of being considered a laggard or ‘out of touch with the new reality’. Effectively, the societal license to operate has tipped and a new norm has become established. Another typical dimension of an established new norm is that it becomes difficult to imagine that such a norm did not exist before, like in the case of the broad conviction that child labour should never have been allowed.   

The third and final stage is norm internalization. This is when the new norm becomes consolidated in policy and law making as it is considered to represent a generally accepted minimal level of legitimate behaviour. Here it is important to note that this implies that policy and law makers tend to follow norm setting in society instead of spearheading the establishment of new norms. 

The key actors 

What does this imply for the frugal innovation debate? In order to show how this framework helps us with mainstreaming frugal innovation thinking, we need to populate these stages with actors. We distinguish between two types of actors. Those who develop frugal innovations and those who facilitate the process.  

Amongst those who actually develop frugal innovations, we can identify three types of norm entrepreneurs. The first group consists of people trying to creatively solve a bottleneck in their own community. They are not primarily motivated by the prospects of subsequently making a business based on their innovation. They recognise a problem and see a technical or organizational solution, which is affordable and saves energy or other resources. The second category are social entrepreneurs and NGOs who develop frugal innovations – sometimes with local stakeholders – to help address a Sustainable Development Goal, like access to electricity through a solar-panel driven local mini-grid. These two types of norm entrepreneurs embrace frugal innovation thinking as a way to tackle developmental challenges. The third type of entrepreneurs develop frugal innovations to enhance their competitiveness and profits. They may do this through, for example, simplifying and stripping products, services and systems from superfluous frills, using fewer and possibly more renewable resources. 

Next to those actors who actually develop frugal innovations, we identify four types of facilitators. These are researchers, educators, early adopters and policy makers.  Let us start with the researchers. An increasingly multi-disciplinary academic debate is emerging among researchers about the importance and relevance of frugal innovation. A recent example is a multi-disciplinary Handbook on Frugal Innovation (https://www.icfi.nl/news/handbook), published by Edward Elgar. Educators further spread the message further, for instance business schools which offer case studies of frugal innovation in their courses for future executives. Another example is the popular module on Frugal Innovation for Sustainable Global Development offered to bachelor students from Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Universities in the Netherlands (https://www.icfi.nl/education/lde-minor-frugal-innovation-for-sustainable-global-development-fi4sgd). This module presents frugal innovation as a crucial component in broader sustainability thinking for the next generation.  

The third category of facilitators are so-called early adopters, a term that comes from marketing science. They make frugal innovations fashionable, demonstrating a lifestyle that others can then aspire to. Typically, they are younger people with high levels of income and education, for whom greener and more frugal consumption patterns are already a more established norm. A final facilitating actor are law and policy makers. In the basic Norm Life Cycle framework, they come to prominence only in the final stage of internalisation, where they further consolidate a new norm in the law and in policies. In principle, however, they can also play a role earlier in the process, as discussed in the next section.  

Moving forward 

What stage are we currently in? De facto we are in the norm emergence stage. However, advertising creates the illusion that we are already in the norm cascading stage. ‘Responsible resource use’ may be ubiquitous in advertising but not yet in reality. In this concluding section we indicate how the various actors can help the progression from norm emergence to norm cascading.       

In the present norm emergence stage, norm entrepreneurs that actually develop and implement frugal innovations are crucial to show how such innovations benefit poorer people while being sparing in the use of resources. The facilitating actors are also crucial as their role is to showcase these examples and create the conditions for the broader public and policy makers to grasp the importance of frugal innovations. The research community, one of the facilitating actors, showed recently an encouraging sign of getting closer to the tipping point towards norm cascading. In its December 2023 editorial, the journal Nature apologizes for neglecting frugal innovation research and encourages policy makers, scientists and journal editors to ‘not just to make do, but to make amends’ and make frugal innovation a mainstream concern. (Nature, Vol 624, 7 Dec 2023, p. 8).  

The question is how to achieve this. Here we benefit from the step taken in the previous section in which we populated the Norm Life Cycle framework with the relevant actors.  Now we need to take this one step further and consider these actors not in isolation but as potential collaborators in a common project. The relevance of doing this was stressed in our previous blog which emphasized the role of coalitions in promoting renewable energy (https://www.icfi.nl/news/what-can-the-frugal-innovation-debate-learn-from-the-renewable-energy-debate). 

There are signs that some policy actors (facilitators of frugal innovation!) are starting to join hands and build alliances with like-minded stakeholders. Some policy makers at the provincial and European levels have been pro-active in generating interest in frugal innovation thinking, and in trying to convince their colleagues and political chiefs of its importance. Such frontrunners are important allies in attempts to weld stronger coalitions with like-minded norm entrepreneurs and other facilitators to push towards the key tipping point towards norm cascading. 

Still, as a diverse community of facilitators, we need to become more strategic about the need to really act in tandem as norm entrepreneurs. As shown in our previous blog mentioned above, one can go further and build selective and temporary coalitions with stakeholders who may well have other ulterior objectives but would lend support to the initiative in question. This also applies here. While actors may have very different motives for promoting frugal innovation, we need to pragmatically form alliances to create critical mass.  For example, actors whose prime concern is the fostering of local economic development or the promotion of Small and Medium Enterprise could become allies in supporting frugal innovation projects and policies. Operationally, we can start with developing a set of appealing pitches for various audiences of why and how frugal innovation will help to address some of the grand challenges of our time. Further sector- and region-specific research is needed to substantiate and concretize such pitches.  

There is an alternative route from norm emergence to norm cascading in which early adopters play the key role. Let us explain. So far, we have assumed that the norms emerge in the context of poor communities. Indeed, frugal innovation research has tended to unearth examples of innovations which are resource saving and are affordable by the poor from the start. However, we need to recognise that some innovations are expensive to start with and become affordable by the poor later in the product life cycle. This is why we introduced the category of early adopters as facilitators of frugal innovation. 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. Researchers can contribute by showing examples of communities where frugal innovation thinking – taking this route – has become the way to move forward. In other words, a concern with the dynamics of frugal innovation leads us to also consider this route from norm emergence to norm cascading.   

As stressed in the beginning, the Norm Life Cycle framework helps us to unpack the time dimension and creates the mental space for exploring processes and sequences. We have seen that bringing about a cascading effect is a huge challenge. Once frugal innovation reaches the norm cascading stage, policy and law makers are crucial to further consolidate this in the norm internalization stage. Moreover, the early adopters can pave the way towards norm internalization by setting the example of more frugal consumption patterns, out of choice, not necessity. For this norm internalization to occur it would benefit from a vision that is aspirational and expresses both the resource saving and affordability of our ambition. We propose ‘frugal prosperity for all’ as the vision to strive for.