This year innovators will become thriftier, says Geoff Mulgan
No-one knows exactly what will happen to the world economy in 2012. But the odds are that many countries will experience either no growth or a contraction in their economies. There'll be more unemployment; more people struggling to make ends meet; and probably more anger. Crises are not pleasant things to live through. But one of their few virtues is they do often accelerate innovation.
Two trends look likely to result. The first is more innovation to support frugality. We're already seeing a proliferation of new collaborative consumption tools that make it easier to get a bed in a foreign city, to rent a car or borrow someone else's power drill. All provide services at much lower cost than the mainstream market. Within business we should expect more cut price offerings; a drive for simplicity and no-frills; and perhaps more business models in which the customer does more of the work (what about, for example, restaurants where you bring your own plates and cutlery?).
The other trend will be frugal innovation. Most of the world's innovations systems are pretty lavish, centred around big laboratories in businesses or universities and high overheads. In some cases, like US defence or CERN, the budgets are so large that extravagance is inevitable. By contrast other parts of the world have encouraged much cheaper innovation models: India has encouraged grassroots innovation within villages and communities, more like DIY or bricolage.
Some companies are trying to make a virtue out of scarce resources to force inventors to make do with cheap components, quick deadlines and mobilising free ideas (for instance from consumers). Some of the world's most useful innovations haven't required great expense - that's true of many new business models (like easyJet), new software (like Firefox) and even of new products (like the iPod, which was more a creative assemblage of existing elements than something radically new).
So watch out for a new generation of frugal innovators, frugal laboratories and frugal innovation programmes trying to maximise creative impact for the minimum expense.