“Frugal Innovation” – an inquiry into a blind spot in STS

by Lisa Sigl

Frugal Innovation

Concepts and notions of innovation are societal and political battlegrounds. How strongly they imply imaginations about responsibilities between science and society becomes apparent when comparing notions of innovation in different socio-political contexts. In European policy contexts, innovation is mostly defined as technological innovation for the market, insinuating that its primary responsibility is to secure competitiveness, economic growth and jobs. With this market-orientation in mind, the vehemence with which the Indian government promotes “frugal innovation” as “sharply” contrasting with this “conventional approach” in its current Five Year Plan is striking. The absence of critical reflection in STS on this remarkable innovation concept is so striking that I want to open a discussion here.

“Frugal innovation” is often described as an art of doing more with less resources, specified in the Five Year Plan as a focus “on the efficiency of innovation and on outcomes that benefits people, especially the poor”. Its primary aim is the provision of timely access to technological progress and thus the dissemination of innovative solutions amongst marginalized groups of the population. In practice, “frugal innovation” goes even further, since in many instances scientists and non-scientists collaborate in order to develop specific technological solutions for disadvantaged groups (e.g. portable medical devices for rural areas). Thus, social and technological solutions are thought together in a bottom-up approach and settings are created that go beyond usually discussed formats of participation.

A prominent example is the “Jaipur Foot”, a prosthetic limb that can be produced for as little as $50, in comparison to conventional prostheses that usually cost thousands of Dollars. Using widely available and cheap raw materials, it has been co-invented by an illiterate craftsman – who was frustrated by the unaffordability of prosthetic limbs in his living environment – in collaboration with a prosthetic surgeon. Aiming at affordability and wide availability, the production facility has now expanded to prosthetic knee-joints and employs workers, who themselves are often users of the prostheses (see video). The tight entanglement between the innovation process and empowerment in concrete living spaces draws our attention to the fact that social value is often not the result of high-tech labs. Created in innovative eclecticism of knowledge, experience, materials and means, the impression is strong that frugal innovation actually (in practice, not only on paper) can put into question core presumptions of rather Western notions of innovation.

To be sure, this frugal approach to arriving at solutions is no recent phenomenon. What is now often treated as Innovation’s Holy Grail has already been known as “Gandhian” or “Jugaad” innovation in India, as „Zizhu chuangin“ in China or as „gambiarra“ in Brazil (Leadbeater 2014). Signifying grassroots-based innovation on the basis of minimal resources, these approaches already placed high value on self-determination and empowerment.

What seems to be new, however, is how state-of-the-art scientific knowledge is often integrated to the frugal approach and how the concept is taken up, discussed and appropriated in different contexts: Beside the above mentioned ennoblement as innovation concept that aligns innovation with social policy aims, there has been massive rise in scientific papers (from 10 in 2009 to 758 in 2015), policy advice and business consulting (Rafiou et al. 2012) that sound out potentials of frugal approaches in different contexts. Many authors however follow a mind-set of “technological innovation for the market” and narrow down frugality to strategies of cost saving and of opening up low-income markets in focusing on specific demand-profiles. With notable exceptions (e.g. Bhaduri 2013), the term “frugal innovation” therewith is stripped from broader social-political claims.

This is unfortunate from an STS perspective, since the explicitly alternative framing of innovation raises important questions on how the concept is put to practice – both for practices of developing innovations and for the political practices of institutions and organizations that are central to innovation policies. How, for example, would funding and research institutions have to look like if they had to determine the value of innovation in terms of access to solutions and social policy aims, instead of “numbers of papers and patents produced” as claimed in the Five Year Plan? Or, to put it in more general terms, does the concept reflect a sociotechnical imaginary that is powerful in shaping practices; e.g. as a mindset that motivates people, a guide in shaping core institutions in the world of research and innovation or in building infrastructures that allow the frugal approach to flourish (Jasanoff/Kim 2009: 120)?

Whether “frugal innovation” is an imaginary that really shapes political practices could – amongst others – be studied along decisions of the Indian Patent Office on controversial patents for medical treatments: in these decisions, the aspiration to democratize technological progress stands in clear contrast to the TRIPS-agreement (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) that allows for strong protection of intellectual property. Most recent examples suggest that the frugal approach increasingly gets under pressure: while the Indian Patent Office has a tradition of rejecting patents on medical treatments (such as the Hepatitis-C drug Sovaldi® by the US company Gilead Pharmasset or the HIV drug Nevirapine by Boehringer Ingelheim; New 2015, Mukherjee 2015), the patent on Sovaldi® was now granted just a few days ago, which is seen as a major setback in granting access (Mukherjee 2016).

The promises of “frugal innovation” seem manifold, as are the ways in which it is contested. Critical reflection is imperative to avoid the approach to get consumed by dominant notions of innovation that reduce it to satisfying low-income markets, to allow it to consolidate the link to social policy aims and to open promising new pathways of thinking about social responsibility of research and innovation.



Critical Reviews of Indian National Intellectual Property Rights Policy, 2016


Bhaduri, S. (2013). Frugal innovation by ‘the small and the marginal’, available at: bit.ly/1Xw5Ffg (08.06.2016).

Jasanoff, S., & Kim, S.-H. (2009). Containing the Atom: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and Nuclear Power in the United States and South Korea. Minerva, 47, 119-146.

Leadbeater, C. (2014). The Frugal Innovator. Creating Change on a Shoestring Budget. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Rafjou, N., Prabhu, Jaideep and Simone Ahuja (2012). Jugaad Innovation. Think frugal, be flexible, generate breakthrough growth. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lisa Sigl is university assistant at the Research Platform for Responsible Research and Innovation in Academic Practice at the University of Vienna and research assistant at the Center for Higher Education at the Technical University of Dortmund. Her main research interest lies in the conditions that allow societal responsibility (in its various dimensions) to be a legitimate and potent value in research cultures and practices.