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The Anti-Concorde project, or, what the UK government should do about frugal innovation

Yesterday we had the pleasure of joining up with Professor Jaideep Prabhu and Navi Radjou to launch their new book, Frugal Innovation, at Nesta.

Frugal innovation, as the authors explained, is the business of doing more with less, especially by coming up with much cheaper ways of making products or delivering services by thinking about the needs of low-income consumers or resource-constrained environments. India has been a hotbed of frugal innovation in recent years – the authors talked about how surgeon Devi Shetty is driving the cost of heart operations below $1,000 per patient and how Bharti Airtel created the world’s cheapest mobile phone tariff (there are more case studies here).

The authors also pointed out that frugal innovation has a role to play in “rich” countries too. They mentioned the Renault Logan, a radically no-frills, affordable car built on frugal innovation principles that has been a success in the West.

There’s an especially urgent need for this in the UK today. It’s no secret that a lot of people are feeling financially squeezed – median wages have grown little in recent years, but until recently, prices continued to increase (and according to the Joseph Rowntree foundation, they increased more for people on lower incomes). And the poorest in society pay more for everything from credit to mobile phone calls to utilities (French anti-poverty campaigner Martin Hirsch’s new book Cela Devient Cher D’Etre Pauvre makes this point forcefully). All told, there is a strong case that the UK could do with a lot more frugal innovation.

This raises an important question for the Government. The British government spends about half a billion pounds a year backing innovation directly through Innovate UK grants, and several times that through things like R&D tax credits.

But very little of this has any explicit bearing on the needs of Britain’s poorest. To my knowledge, there are no government-backed programmes looking at frugal innovation or at the specific needs of people and families on very low incomes. Of course, sometimes the benefits of technology trickle down the income scale. But not always: consider Concorde, a flagship state project (literally) that ended up flying the super-rich between London and New York.

 I can’t help thinking that it’s time for an Anti-Concorde project. If the government wants to help, it could devote a small slice of the money it currently spends supporting innovation to backing businesses and entrepreneurs who are taking fresh approaches to the needs of people on low incomes. If Jaideep and Navi are right about the power of frugal innovation, a modest investment could reap big rewards.

Author

Stian Westlake

Stian Westlake

Stian Westlake

Executive Director of Policy and Research

Stian led Nesta's Policy and Research team. His research interests included the measurement of innovation and its effects on productivity, the role of high-growth businesses in the e...

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