Navi Radjou, co-author of the best-seller “Jugaad innovation”, returns to the roots of frugal ingenuity. Or how makerspaces in India will “activate the chakras” of future entrepreneurs.
Navi Radjou is a free electron in high demand with innovation managers. Between two columns for the Harvard Business Review, this Americano-Franco-Indian engineer from the prestigious French engineering school Ecole Centrale, born in 1970 in Pondichery, moves from one TED conference to the next, writes best-sellers on the circular economy and agile management, campaigns for a fairer society at the World Economic Forum. Wherever he goes, this theorist of frugal innovation defends the inclusive virtues of jugaad, this art of Indian tinkering that allows you to find simple but ingenious solutions to complex problems. Working on his next book, Conscious Society: Reinventing How We Consume, Work, and Live, the release of which is due in April 2019, he reveals his point of view on the innovation ecosystem in India and the reasons that are driving the sub-continent at the forefront of the world maker scene.
What makes the specificity of the maker ecosystem in India?
This movement is not a new phenomenon in India. Indians, very familiar with the concept of DIY or resourcefulness, call it jugaad, i.e. the capacity to improvise and find an effective solution to a problem with little resources.
I remember that in the 1970s, when I was growing up in Pondichery—a former French colony in India—there was a DIY center next to my house named ‘Système D’: over there, people repaired household appliances and electronic devices! It has to be said that in India, we don’t throw anything away and we try to repair and reuse all objects as much as possible. Antoine Lavoisier, inventor of the famous expression “nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed” must have been Indian in a previous life! In every Indian city, and in nearly every neighborhood, you can find people who help you to repair EVERYTHING.
“The ‘jugaad’ is creative resilience, resourcefulness, that allows you to transform adversity into opportunity and come up with a frugal solution to any problem with very little.”
Also, India has never known mass consumption of standardized products, even if this is changing nowadays: you can therefore still find in the small towns of India tailor shops where you can have your clothes made to measure at low cost or have your furniture made to measure instead of buying it at Ikea. The DIY spirit (creating unique and personalized objects and repairing them), the principle behind the maker movement, has been deeply anchored in the Indian culture for centuries. In its form and practices, the maker movement is a novelty for India.
In what way does the maker movement bring novelty?
This originality has three dimensions: the digital dimension, the community and hardware entrepreneurship. The digital dimension will help India economically (and ecologically) in two ways: with 3D printers, India can prevent adopting the large scale industrialization model that China has embraced and that has led to an ecological disaster, not to mention the inhumane treatment of manual workers in the factories of subcontractors like Foxconn that manufactures the Apple iPhones. By relying on 3D technology, India could promote a distributed and decentralized industrial model (manufacturing) that better meets local needs, seeing that India is a subcontinent with huge cultural and economical diversity. The digital dimension could also help India to share, via Internet, good practices and ideas between fablabs, thus creating an innovation network throughout the country. The World Bank considers that if India was able to spread and share its innovations between its regions, the country would see its collective GNP increase by 2 to 3% which is enormous. For example, the Digital Green program helps farmers throughout India to share their inventions.
The sense of community that prevails in makerspaces will also help to speed up the innovation process in India, allowing young entrepreneurs to find help, intellectually and morally, with the other makers and go rapidly from idea to prototype.
Makerspaces can become the catalysts of a new wave of entrepreneurship in India that one can call hardware start-ups. The computing industry in India was developed thanks to its software sector. It is time for India to set forth on the path of hardware innovation. It wasn’t possible in the 1990s and 2000s, because the entrepreneurs were then baby-boomers or from generation X who thought that “mind is more powerful than hands” and preferred to use their brains to create intangible value (software) and not tangible things (hardware).
But the Indians from generation Y and especially Z are looking for a balance between body, intelligence, heart and soul: for them, makerspaces will become a privileged place to express themselves creatively with their hands, learn by doing, develop social ties and contribute to society. Makerspaces will therefore help to activate the chakras of young Indian entrepreneurs who will co-build the Indian society of tomorrow that,—I hope!—will be inclusive and lasting.
As it happens, aren’t you afraid of a “bubble” effect around the more technological aspects of the maker movement?
Yes, I am afraid that the hype around 3D printing, i.e. automated and personalized fabrication, will harm the maker movement spirit that tries to promote the human side of the innovation and value creation process. I think the maker movement represents the democratization of innovation (any citizen is potentially an e-MacGyver capable of innovating and creating something relying on the tools and communities available in a makerspace), empowerment and decentralization: each city, even each neighborhood, can produce its products locally, freeing itself from a centralized capitalist model of mega-production and mega-distribution, polluting and source of alienation.
According to a participant of Fabrikarium, a hackathon dedicated to disability in Mumbai, India should count on rural innovation, not only on frugal innovation. What is your opinion?
Frugal innovation is universal in its scope and its practice: today, creative people from all walks of life do it. And in very different contexts: urban and rural, poor and rich, men and women, young and elderly people, social entrepreneurs and large groups, etc. I consider rural innovation as a subsystem or rather as a scope of application of frugal innovation, that, as a universal concept, transcends any specific geographical context.
Having said that, as I demonstrated in my first book Jugaad innovation, it is certain that the rural areas in India, with its huge socio-economical constraints, are a favorable and fertile ground to learn to do more with less, which is the essence of frugal innovation. It is the case of Arunachalam Muruganantham, the “tampon king”: Arunachalam is a true maker in the south of India, who invented low-cost menstrual tampons for hundreds of thousands of women in rural areas, despite the ostracism he endured in his own village. In fact, Bollywood has just produced a film on him (Pad Man) that is meeting a great commercial success.
How have your theories on the “jugaad” evolved over the last few years? To what extent were they influenced by your observations of the maker movement in India?
Jugaad innovation, my first book published in 2013, covers jugaad 1.0 by studying social entrepreneurs in underdeveloped regions, individual makers who innovate alone with often low-tech technologies. Frugal Innovation, my second book published in 2015, covers jugaad 2.0 by analyzing the makers’ movement in developed countries: instead of innovating all alone, makers of the Y and Z generations innovate collectively within a community by relying on high-end technologies such as 3D printing.
As I described it in a recent opinion column, the STEAM School embodies the jugaad 3.0, i.e. makers from the developed world and emerging markets who will collaborate and co-create frugal solutions to meet global concerns such as healthcare, water, energy, agriculture, education…