Frugal innovation: the engine of sustainable development

Two young girls, one holding her immunization papers.
Inclusive and sustainable development in both emerging and advanced economies requires frugal innovation—a disruptive approach that strives to deliver more economic and social value to more people using fewer financial and nature resources.

How to achieve better health care for more people at lower cost

Development goes hand in hand with innovation. Western countries became “developed” economies by investing heavily in research and development (R&D) to create new technologies and processes.

Yet today, the R&D-driven innovation model is running out of steam because it is too costly, elitist, and rigid and fails to address even basic socioeconomic needs. More Americans are getting sicker—45 percent have at least one chronic disease—even as health care spending skyrockets.

The West’s “more with more” innovation model uses ever more financial and natural resources to produce ever more costly and sophisticated products and services. Low-income countries don’t stand to gain much by importing this model.

Inclusive and sustainable development in both emerging and advanced economies requires frugal innovation—a disruptive approach that strives to deliver more economic and social value to more people using fewer financial and natural resources.

By delivering “more (and better) with less,” frugal innovation enables socially and environmentally responsible economic development through products and services that combine four qualities: affordability, accessibility, sustainability, and quality.

Based on my in-depth study of pioneers of frugal innovation in the global health care sector, I identified three core principles that public, private, and nonprofit organizations can use to create and deliver health solutions at lower cost to more people.

Favor simplicity over sophistication

Easier-to-use medical solutions are less expensive to develop and maintain and more accessible. For instance, to address China’s shortage of qualified doctors, Siemens’ Chinese engineers created a CT scanner that can be used by health professionals who are not doctors. This scanner, which processes images more quickly and uses less energy, cuts the cost of treatment by 30 percent and curbs radiation by up to 60 percent. It is now successfully commercialized in the United States.

Use what is abundant to address what is scarce

Health care providers should use resources that already exist widely—like abundant mobile and satellite connectivity—to deliver care faster, better, and cheaper.

For example, Dr. Mohan, a world-renowned diabetologist, operates a mobile clinic in India housed in a satellite-enabled van that links low-income patients in remote villages to urban doctors. Dr. Mohan teamed up with the Indian space agency to get free satellite communication for his telemedicine service.

Collaborate across sectors for greater impact

Private-sector health providers should team up with public and nonprofit entities and integrate their knowledge and networks to boost their reach.

For instance, to help reduce infant and maternal mortality in Bangladesh, General Electric partnered with Grameen Kalyan (a sister company of Grameen Bank) to train paramedics in rural clinics in the use of ultrasound devices, making this solution more widely available. The nonprofit ColaLife “piggybacks” on the cold-chain process of soft drink distributors as an inexpensive way to preserve lifesaving medicines and distribute them to African villages.

Ultimately, frugal innovation could boost collaboration between emerging and advanced economies, enabling them to cocreate affordable and sustainable health solutions that benefit everyone.

Photo: PATH/Aaron Joel Santos.