BRAC and ‘Jugaad’ Innovation

Last week’s talk on Jugaad Innovation gave us much to think about. We have two guest bloggers this week with great insights on BRAC’s institutional approach on frugal innovation. Toby Norman is one of Dr. Prabhu’s research students from Cambridge University, and is currently exploring ways to build more evaluation into BRAC’s HRLS and Health Program. Our second write up is by Himadri Ashan from BRAC, Communications. Himadri believes that BRAC’s core development strategies are intuitively frugal, but needs an added layer of creative consistency to keep our innovations in progress.

Jugaad Innovation on the Frontlines

By Toby Norman

Last year Merck spent $8.12 billion on research and development. With this money they hope to ultimately develop 4-5 new blockbuster drugs. And if they’re lucky, they’ll be ready in about 10 years or so. For pharmaceutical giants like Merck and Pfizer, such a long-term strategy involving massive spending may be the only way to play the game. But R&D spending has been steadily on the rise in most industries for decades now, a slowly boiling “arms race” that has spawned massive labs, armies of scientists, and research budgets which make the world’s top universities pale in comparison. And the outcomes of this spending are predictable: more technologically sophisticated products, more features, more gadgets, and ever higher prices.

But for the majority of the world’s population, the fruits of this Western model of innovation are largely out of reach. What good does developing a refrigerator with a computer inside it do for a subsistence farmer in Malawi? Must we wait 50 years for the world’s innovations to “trickle down”? Recent research by Dr. Jaideep Prabhu at the University of Cambridge and others suggests that another model of innovation is rising to the forefront in today’s recession-constrained world. Called jugaad (Hindi for clever, cheap fix) or frugal innovation, this model relies on using flexible and creative thinking to discover solutions that are radically cheaper and simpler to turn existing markets on the head, or create new markets entirely.

Frugal innovation is not just about products; process innovation is also essential. Take the new “Land Entrepreneurs” initiative of BRAC’s Human Rights & Legal Services Division. Property rights are a massive problem in Bangladesh, perpetuating poverty as the poor are evicted or disenfranchised from their land. But can an organization find a frugal and financially scalable innovation for a problem that many would classify as hopelessly political? BRAC thinks so. Getting the poor property rights requires a new class of Land Entrepreneurs or LEs to fan the countryside surveying properties and recording human rights violations. Running these classes could be expensive, but BRAC isn’t doing this for free. LEs take out a BRAC loan for the courses which provides them in-demand skills to survey the upper and middle classes. In return BRAC mandates that 10% of surveyance is given pro-bono to the poorest households, achieving their social impact in a financially viable way that can be scaled nationwide.

BRAC didn’t build an expensive R&D lab to come up with this solution. They developed it by clearly articulating a problem, examining other successful models, and thinking outside the box. Most importantly, the innovating process does not end here. In the complex world of social impact BRAC has to rigorously measure the effectiveness of its program and continuously experiment with strategic variations to find the best approach. Iteration between experimentation and evaluation is an essential characteristic of any good frugal innovator. But if BRAC can do it, so can the rest of us.

Creating more with Less

By Himadri Ahsan

BRAC has the passion and fervent ‘can-do attitude’ of hungry small entrepreneurs. But it’s hard to shrug off the fact that we have now matured into a more formal organization.  As we get into the habit of bringing in external experts to share their knowledge and experience, we may become more inclined to replace intuition with frameworks, impose processes, and devote ourselves entirely towards redesigning our core strategies – all of which are foreign to the chaotic world of creativity.

We may also find ourselves focusing on managing innovation, just as we manage many of our operations and business activities. Consequently, we may be at the risk of losing our frugal innovativeness to the industrialization of the creative process. Before we know it, our services can become expensive and exclusive in nature. This naturally leads us to the question – should BRAC then devoid itself from innovation management? Authors of Jugaad Innovations argue that the approach should in fact be complementary to the process of innovation management. In other words, organizations like BRAC should “mesh the agile and resilient spirit of Jugaad with more structured approach to innovation”. In their book, the authors supposedly delve into the details of the adoption process of Jugaad principles.

In sum, the key take-away for us from Dr. Prabhu may be that although we have intuitively been working the Jugaad way, we ought to find ways to preserve this unique mindset, rather than reinventing our creative processes altogether. We should feel more confident to explore the next big step – from intuition to systematic innovation.


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