What can the frugal innovation debate learn from the renewable energy debate?

By Hubert Schmitz and Peter Knorringa

Making economic progress sustainable has become the central issue of our time.  Recent work on frugal innovation seeks to contribute to this challenge.  This blog asks what the analysts and practitioners of frugal innovation can learn from the renewable energy debate.  Frugal innovation is a young line of work compared with that on renewable energy which has a long and prominent history.  It therefore makes sense to distil what the former can learn from the latter, particularly since both seek to contribute to the sustainability of human life on our planet.   

The key attributes of frugal innovations are first, that they are sparing in the use of resources and second, that poor people can afford them.  These features matter especially in poor countries but also for low-income people in rich countries. Frugal innovation is thus relevant for most of the world’s population.   Here are some examples: low-cost ventilators which do not need electricity to help hospitals treating COVID patients; irrigation pumps that do not require diesel or electricity; safely sending and receiving money without a bank account.   

What are we trying to achieve?  

Our central concern is to find ways of making frugal innovations more common. Indeed, the central concern which underlies this blog is whether and how the development and uptake of frugal innovations can be accelerated.  

There are of course examples of standard innovation benefiting poor people. Perhaps the best-known example is the mobile phone which enables people to leapfrog fixed phone lines and organise their lives in a multitude of time saving ways: arrange meetings, make payments, negotiate deals, and access the latest information.  The standard innovation process, however, is rarely driven by the concerns of poor people.  On the contrary, the innovation process is usually targeted at the better off and benefits to the poor tend to be a by-product that emerges at a late stage in the product cycle.  Support of frugal innovation aims to target lower income customers at an earlier stage and do so for many products.  Even that is just half the battle.  The aim is to come up with products which are also sparing in the use of scarce resources.  Frugal innovation is about addressing the resource constraint and affordability criterion.  This is a tall order.    

Another way of capturing the essence of frugal innovation is to talk about over-engineering.  Products tend to be over-engineered when the innovation process is not driven by concerns with affordability and material saving.  Most of us have ample experience of dealing with over-engineered products which are sophisticated and expensive, providing features which we rarely, if ever, use.  In contrast, we tend to have few products which result from frugal innovation. The aim is to help change that balance.  But how?   

In order to address this HOW question, some useful lessons can be learned from the renewable energy debate which has a longer history.  Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy is essential for reducing carbon emissions responsible for the climate chaos (increasing frequency of extreme weather events) which we can now observe in many parts of the world. We will draw here in particular on the development and deployment of solar and wind energy, so far the most successful technologies in replacing fossil fuels.  The literature on the energy transition is huge.  In this blog we draw on two articles which have pulled together the most relevant lessons: Cameron Roberts, Frank Geels, Matthew Lockwood et al, 2018, ‘The politics of accelerating low-carbon transitions: towards a new research agenda’, Energy Research & Social Science 44, 304-311, and Hubert Schmitz, 2017, ‘Who drives climate relevant policies in the rising powers?’, New Political Economy 22:5, 521-540.  

The first lesson is about framing.  The concern is to accelerate frugal innovation. We are not starting from scratch.  This provides a space for celebrating the frugal technologies and the organisations which have brought them about. There is something to build on. Exploring frugal innovation is not a hopeless undertaking.  A framing in terms of accelerating progress also invites a discussion of why there is success in some cases and failure in others. Even if successes are rare, the comparison with failures makes for a more analytical debate.  

The second lesson from the renewable energy debate is that the key problem is not technological but political. This seems to apply also to frugal innovation. Solutions which prioritise saving resources and being affordable can be found.  But the forces which drive the innovation tend to take the process into a different direction.  This became clear in a discussion we had with a senior EU official who was himself enthusiastic about the potential of frugal innovation but sceptical about getting it high onto the EU innovation policy agenda because ‘nobody lobbies for frugal innovation’.   

The coalition perspective 

This hint at politics takes us in the right direction but needs further thought.  The renewable energy debate helps us with this.  It suggests a political economy approach which takes four analytical steps: 

  • Recognising that no single actor has the resources to bring about the transition to renewable energy. 

  • Recognising that actors in government, business and civil society seek to advance or slow down the process. 

  • Paying attention to alignments of interest across government, business and civil society. 

  • Including actors with different motives and to understand these alignments.  

Detailed empirical analysis has shown that these alignments of interest have made the difference at key moments in renewable energy promotion.  The vocabulary used for these alignments varies.  Some call them ‘coalitions’, others prefer ‘alliances’.  The breakthrough in the renewable energy debate came when it was recognised that those joining the coalition did not necessarily do so in order to fight climate change.  Some were more concerned with securing energy for their region or company, others with building a new industry and creating jobs.  What mattered was not their motivation but their support for a particular piece of legislation or for a new programme or project. Often the resulting coalition was incidental, members happened to pull in the same direction for whatever reason.  In other cases, there was a consciously pursued strategy.  This distinction between incidental and strategic coalition seems useful as well.  Finally, it is important to realise that this coalition approach works both ways.  I can help us to understand where and why progress was made.  It can also help to understand where and why progress was held back.  

In summary, climate relevant renewable energy research has given us a language and an analytical apparatus which has the potential to advance the frugal innovation debate.  We will now discuss some specific ways in which this could be made to work.  

Coalitions for frugal innovation?  

How can the development and uptake of frugal innovation be accelerated?   This is our central question.  Adopting the coalition perspective means asking who is interested in frugal innovation – for whatever reason.  We will want to look for relevant actors in government (including inter-governmental organisation); in business (both domestic and foreign, both large and small); and in civil society (including academia).  Let us start with the latter. 

The first actor that comes to mind is us: the members and associates of the International Centre for Frugal Innovation.  Most of us are academics, trying to understand the world and improve it.  There are others pursuing the same objective but operating under a different heading. A notable example is ‘circular economy’. We need to apply the coalition perspective to ourselves and reach out to the colleagues who use the circular economy approach. They have an even stronger emphasis on saving resources with their ‘Triple ‘R’ strategy (re-use, repair, recycle) and ‘extended producer responsibility’ for end-of-life disposal. Implementing this strategy requires above all organisational innovation.  Affordability is a less explicit objective, but it is implicit in their work.  The important thing in adopting the coalition perspective is to concentrate on common ground and not on differences.  This can be uncomfortable in that the brand (frugal innovation, circular economy, appropriate technology) gives us a feeling of identity and sometimes also privileged access to a particular funder.   

As policy-oriented researchers we need to work with people in government, concentrating not necessarily on ministries or departments but pockets within these ministries or departments that are interested in and relevant for our work.  Governments tend to work in silos. The coalition perspective makes us look across these silos and identify the most significant players who (can) support our work.  In seeking to identify these players, our question is not whether they have the same objective but whether their policies and projects affect what we want to achieve.  For example, there are often pockets in central or local government which seek to promote competitiveness in particular products and services.  If their policies make products or services more frugal, we will want to work with the government officials driving these policies whatever their rationale.  In practice this will often mean adopting a sector-specific or sub-sector specific approach. We recently ran a course with entrepreneurs involved in horticulture. Most of them initially thought that ‘doing innovation’ was only for high-tech sectors with R&D labs. They were surprised how they could in a few sessions co-develop frugal innovations that created new markets for their products. For example, one entrepreneur developed a gift set of mini plants that could be ordered online and delivered through a physical mailbox. 

If we are serious about accelerating frugal innovation, we need to work with business.  This is not easy.  We cannot expect business federations or chambers of industry and commerce to put frugal innovation on their banner. These organisations exist in order to lobby government and support the competitiveness of their members. Broad industry-wide pleas to pay more attention to frugality in their competitiveness strategy are unlikely to work.  Cheese producers operate in a world different from makers of electronic sensors or truck manufacturers or enterprises which specialise in shelving solutions.  At the sectoral level, however, it might be possible to identify enterprises which have developed frugal products, and which can make them more competitive in their home or international market. Asakawa et al (2019) show how this can be achieved in their article ‘Frugality-based Advantage’.   Such positive examples are important to demonstrate that frugal innovation is not just desirable from an equality and sustainability perspective but can also be a good business strategy.  Working with such enterprises would be essential for making the coalition perspective work.   

Business schools have good access to private enterprise and might become key allies.  There is fierce competition between business schools to attract the greatest talents.  Being relevant for the new age of sustainability is essential for business schools to succeed in this competition. ‘Frugal innovation’ provides them with a focus for achieving this.  This can be our entry point for working with business schools.  Such collaboration can help us with studying and promoting frugal innovation.  

Identifying the relevant actors in a coalition is merely the first step.  There is a tested methodology for rapid political economy analysis which can then be used for the subsequent steps: mapping the actors according to whether they support or oppose specific policies or projects; according to how influential they are; according to their location in society (public, private, civic sectors); and according to their priorities (making money, enhancing competitiveness, minimising waste, protecting environment, reducing poverty).  There are simple ways of visualising these configurations of actors and identifying (potential) coalitions. These methods are of the ‘quick and dirty’ kind, more appropriate for rapid analysis than for PhD level research.   

The analysis will then need to distinguish between incidental alignments of interest that come together just to get a particular law or project approved and coalitions which have a more enduring character with regular meetings on strategy and targets.  This is an important point. Coalitions need not be long term alliances, they can be short term for specific aims such as: reforming industrial policy, vocational training or industrial standards; exhibiting a new approach at a trade fair; or developing a new conceptual and practical course on ‘frugal innovation’ to be taught at business schools. Tracing where renewable energy made significant steps forward showed that this kind of coalition perspective helps to see political feasibility in a different – usually more optimistic – way.    

In short, in order to accelerate the development and uptake of frugal innovations we need to come to grips with the the politics of the process.   Borrowing freely and selectively from those who have analysed the political economy of the energy transition is a promising way forward.