Move Over, MacGyver. The New Word on the Street Is 'Frugal Innovation'

It's the science of making things from the stuff around you. (Photo: TNS Sofres/Flickr [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)

Remember MacGyver? According to the Oxford Dictionary, he has now officially been verbed. As Melissa notes in TreeHugger, "The gloriously mullet-haired he-man was known for his knack for making or repairing objects in the most resourceful (and absurdly farfetched) ways." The new Oxford dictionary defines the verb to macgyver as to "Make or repair (an object) in an improvised or inventive way, making use of whatever items are at hand."

In the global development world, they give it a more respectable name: frugal innovation. According to Madeline Bishop in the Christian Science Monitor, it's the hot new trend.

In Kenya, two university students from rural villages came up with a system to recharge a cell phone battery using energy generated from a bicycle, "We took most of [the] items from a junk yard – using bits from spoiled radios and spoiled televisions," one of the students told the BBC.

Innovation and leadership strategist Navi Radjou explains that in the West there's a "more with more" attitude that throws serious money and resources into high-tech solutions that simply don't work in developing countries. He writes that "frugal innovation enables socially and environmentally responsible economic development through products and services that combine four qualities: affordability, accessibility, sustainability, and quality." Radjou advises that we should "use what is abundant to address what is scarce."

eye exam done on smart phone
A complete eye exam can be done with a smartphone. (Photo: Peek Retina)

It's an approach that is having a huge impact. Among things becoming relatively abundant in developing countries are connectivity and smartphones. A great example of frugal innovation is Peek Retina, which I saw at the INDEX: design to improve life awards in Copenhagen last month. A small adapter for a smartphone that lets people perform eye exams without any of the fancy equipment you stare into at your optometrist. Everything is in the phone:

There is no need to carry props like alphabet charts as symbols recognised cross-culturally are displayed directly on the screen of the smartphone. The capability to simulate the patient’s compromised vision and contrast it with normal, healthy vision also exists simply by using photos on the device.
You can have a microscope for 50 cents!. (Photo: INDEX design to improve life)

Another example is the Foldscope, a microscope that costs 50 cents to make but that can do serious diagnosis.

With the wide distribution of the print-and-fold microscope, people can be easily tested and diagnosed for treatment instead of traveling long distances or waiting months to see a medical practitioner. By putting Foldscopes in the hands of all remote health workers, the device not only saves lives, but provides a real hands-on science education to a number of maginalised groups.
You can make something out of everything. (Photo: MIT Press)

Frugal innovation is a new trendy term for something that has been around for a while; in the '80s it was MacGuyver; in the '60s and '70s it was Adhocism, described by Charles Jencks:

Basically it involves using an available system or dealing with an existing situation in a new way to solve a problem quickly and effectively. It is a method of creation relying particularly on resources which are already at hand.

It has ever been thus; people get incredibly creative in a pinch. However the new smartphone technology and the speed of communication and dispersal of information really does make this a new age of Adhocism or MacGyverism or Frugal Innovation. As Bishop concludes:

After decades of technological advances that championed ever more bells and whistles, the time has come to lose the frills and deal with the problems at hand. And by getting back to basics, frugal innovation allows low-income populations to play a major part in their own progress.

It may be the same as it ever was under a new name, but there are new tools and new ways of sharing. And it's not just in the developing world; it can work anywhere. So all welcome the new buzzword, Frugal Innovation.