Month: May 2016

Michigan Radio thread – My reply to Prof. Anil Gupta

Comment thread source Michigan Radio – Fostering grassroots innovation: Lessons India can teach Michigan

screenshot-michiganradio org 2016-05-25 09-23-26

Whoa. Once you realize you are not in a classroom but among your peers and superiors and stop assigning homework, you may yet learn something about real innovation. Kindly read my blog, subscribe to online magazines like, scour, collect and read old issues of Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Science and Mechanics, Mechanics Illustrated, pick up some tools, build, disassemble/assemble or repair something, understand how things are made, design a gadget, hunt scrapyards for a component, be subjected to ridicule and then worthily wear the crown of a critic, proponent or spokesperson of any form of innovation.

I have done enough homework, in fact more than you and I don’t need to constantly re-read your pedantic websites other than to understand your lack of understanding of the subject. So please stop quoting the same 5 websites as if they were the ten commandments. They are not. The real world of innovation is much more accomodative, diverse and evolved than your proverbial ‘frog in the well’ vision.

I also tried to keep it civil, hoping that this discussion will enrich. not just the 2 of us but several others. But your repeatedly supercilious barbs shows I was mistaken. Unfortunately, your pot is already full.

And why is it that you never answer a question to the point, but instead start sermonizing and dodging? I will repeat them again for your benefit.

1. What is the real technological innovation in this windmill you found worthy of a patent?
2. What is the Indian system of innovation?

Since you have challenged my competence, I dare you to concisely answer and defend these questions in an open forum of your choice, instead of hiding behind the privacy of an email. Don’t you think you should, for a change, give the world a chance to grade your answers?

And a double dare. Why not have a debate at IIMA?  Your turf, your audience, your convenience, you and me debating all aspects of innovation. You don’t even have to host me. I will be there. And before you question my eligibility, I am just 10th pass, uneducated and a grass root innovator and fall right into the category you do shodyatras to discover and promote. Well, here I am saving you all the trouble.
Spoiler Alert: But I am not illiterate, ignorant or inarticulate.


How frugal is frugal innovation?

Frugal innovation is not frugal by choice, but by the lack of it.

How does any individual, anywhere, innovate to overcome a personal problem? He tinkers with what he has lying around, salvages from the junk yard and develops an optimal solution, constantly balancing cost and functionality.

But when he has to sell the same to others, his outlook changes. And his focus on frugality gradually vanishes.

What was once his personal, beautiful baby will now be impersonally and critically judged by paying customers. That rusty bolt and nut will have to be replaced with new ones. He will have to use new steel sheets instead of the rusty piece cut out from the car door. Edges will have to be beaded. Painting with a brush will have to be replaced with rust proofing, surface preparation and powder coating. He will need decals. The hand beaten metal cone has to be deep drawn. That open mechanism he had covered with a shoe box now has to be covered with a moulded plastic cover. Those rubber components he cut from a tyre have to be moulded. Plastic ties replaced with metal worm clamps. Since his customers may not be tech savvy, he needs to modify the design, make it user friendly and incorporate safety features and consider maintenance / spare parts issues. He also needs to pack, crate and insure his machine for transportation.

And all these if he has to sell even five units. If he gets orders for 50 units, then he has to contend with issues like a dedicated manufacturing setup, labor, accounting, regulatory compliance, CNC  machines, water jet cutters, MIG, TIG and robotic welders etc while planning for a 500 unit order. Complexities and cost increase with more orders, more expectations, more responsibility and reputation.

Then comes competition. This leads to patent and copyright protection,  forces mass production techniques to reduce unit costs, advertising, R&D to develop newer models and thus is born the evil, profit driven corporation. ‘He’ and ‘frugal innovation’ are dead and gone.

This is true of all frugal innovations and all big corporations. Apple, GE, IBM, Ford are a few that comes to mind. And hence condemning big companies while leading and encouraging frugal innovators up the same path is misleading, devious, myopic and mischievous.

Take the real world example of 2 guys in India who ‘invented’ a windmill water pump. No, no, not in the 17th century but in 2011, and I, for the life of me, cannot fathom what the invention is all about. One report says these frugal innovators used bamboo to build the tower and tin sheets to fabricate the vanes and cost $120. Any DIY guy will also vouch that this could not have cost more than a couple of thousand rupees.

Then came along the National Innovation Foundation, an organization dedicated to discovering and encouraging ‘frugal, grass root innovation’ in India and propogating it globally. NIF ‘helped’ these farmer turned innovators to patent, improve design, find manufacturers, market etc this Indian invention.

After this intervention, this frugal innovation is made of mild steel tubular towers and blades made of ‘light weight material’.

This, now not so frugal an innovation costs rupees 80,000 + transportation + taxes.

Thanks NIF for helping these frugal innovators defeat the very concept of frugal innovation and thanks too for inadvertently proving to the world the reality of frugal innovation and how your or any modern principles, processes, technology or business practises, the very concepts you deviously preach to the developed world to shun, avoid and discard, transforms a frugal innovation into a full fledged modern business.

But the bigger question which proponents of frugal innovation have to answer is how does one define frugal innovation? In the case of the wind mill, is the very first working prototype, costing around 6000 rupees, with all it’s shortcomings, frugal, or the improved version costing 80,000, frugal? 

If the increase in cost can be justified as for better material, design, reliability etc, then who decides how much improvement, in what sector is enough? 

The balance between all these factors is finally decided by the consumer. And this is what any business is all about. Demand and supply. If there is a demand for an unreliable, ugly, inefficient product, it will be met. But then these very same academicians will decry this effort with words like quality, reliability, serviceability, efficiency, aesthetics etc. 

So it would be safe to conclude that “frugal innovation” is a misnomer, a phrase coined solely for the purpose of academic debate. 

But if these guys truly believe their own lies, then they are fools to not realize that they are sitting on an untapped market with billions. Let them frugal innovate, say a car, and prove their theory. Oh wait. The Tata’s tried that with the Nano and failed. 

Jugaad is just pimped out frugal innovation

I have to hand it to those who have managed to package jugaad, a disgraceful form of Indian stupidity, as a form of innovation, DIY and frugal innovation. Well, the only thing jugaad is frugal with is quality and imagination, the very antithesis of innovation.

And it would be safe to assume that these proponents of jugaad are academicians who have never innovated. Else they would never sell us, real innovators short.

The frequently peddled examples of jugaad are local hacks by poor illiterate, ignorant Indians solving a problem with quick fix solutions. They are all inferior versions of what has been done long before and hence cannot qualify as innovation. This is the Indian bourgeois white collar’s desperate effort to make the blue collars elite, respectable and presentable to the world at large so that they can ride on these grease monkey’s Icarus wings.

The latest form of this whitewash is to tactfully apply jugaad or frugal innovation to all non technical areas like innovation in management.  A desperate attempt by a few to stay relevant and market a dangerous concept by packaging it as an exotic, eastern, mystical, ancient secret to a curious (but not stupid) western audience since real innovators can see through this sham.

When you move away from the oft mentioned examples like motor bikes (prime mover) used as pumps or diesel engines fixed to a bullock cart chassis and used as motorised vehicles or re-invented simple agricultural machines which lay discarded on the wayside of western innovation highways, what you experience will be the ugly reality of jugaad in practise. Something we frown upon amongst ourselves, but desperately camouflage for others.

Take the helmet,  a product of advanced engineering, a life saver under constant development. Different composite shells, paddings, crush zones, comfort are thrust areas where millions of dollars are invested. Some would argue that it is over engineered, but not those who possess and value what it is trying to save.

Now shift your focus to India. The land of jugaad,  whose frugal innovators are out to redefine innovation and teach the teachers.

About 80% of India’s vehicle population comprises of 2 wheelers and hence an equally huge market for helmets. Several states have made them compulsory for both riders.

But when we Indians indianized it using a concept called jugaad, we produced a helmet,  that is now worn by the majority of bike riders, a helmet which costs less than 100 rupees, or $1.5. No. Not a typo. A DOLLAR AND FIFTY CENTS. We managed to pull off this disgraceful feat by intentionally ignoring the key concept of protection, the very essence of a helmet.

FRP helmet shells - Frugal innovation

FRP helmet shells Frugal innovation

Our helmets look every bit like a real helmet, bright and colorful, with visors and comfortable foam padding. But the superficial similarity ends there. Our single layer FRP helmets are as fragile as the very glass the FRP  was born from and was invented to overcome. Forget about protecting our heads,  they can’t protect themselves when accidently dropped.

Unfortunately one can’t see this facet of jugaad highlighted by the touts of frugal innovation because they drive around in swanky, chauffeur driven cars, visit remote villages, publicize the irrelevant, inveigle the perpetrators and inadvertently do more harm than good.

When the task of the world’s innovators is to raise the bar, our ‘innovators’are playing limbo bar, the exact opposite.

%d bloggers like this: