‘AI, machine learning can facilitate rollout of frugal innovations in a resource-scarce world’

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Frugal innovations are of vital importance in a resource-scarce world – and particularly in a country like India – and can get a vital leg-up through artificial intelligence and machine learning as this will ensure their optimum utilisation, says a new book that calls for a major push forward to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals 2030.

“In a resource-scarce world, the importance of frugal innovation has been well acknowledged. However, it needs to be emphasised that merely producing cheap products (e.g. through jugaad approach) is not enough since they fail to offer adequate value to consumers,” Malavika Dadlani, Anil Wali and Kaushik Mukerjee told IANS in a joint interview of their book, “The Art And Science Of Frugal Innovation” (Penguin) that was “conceived to emphasise the importance of a scientific approach while undertaking frugal innovations”.

“The role of AI, Machine Learning, etc. can be very important in facilitating the rollout of frugal innovations in a resource scarce world since they can help in more judicious use of resources,” they said.

Frugal innovations – the process of reducing the complexity and cost of a product without affecting its utility – “can help bridge the divide through more robust yet affordable designs and diffusion of innovations. This will hopefully promote egalitarianism in our societies in the future,” they added.

The outcome of the collaboration between a scientist, a technologist and innovation evangelist, and an associate professor of business management, the research undertaken while writing the book focused on academic papers, practitioner reports and real-life innovations undertaken by various start-ups in recent times.

“In fact, we provide an insight into several lesser known frugal innovations that have been launched by various Indian firms,” the authors said.

Thus, “The Art and Science of Frugal Innovation” is about breaking boundaries and sharing knowledge, expertise, and ideas that can lead to sustainable development for all that SDG 2030 aims at.

“Strong industry-academia partnerships through contract research, right from the identification of the problem and ideation to technology development and validation, could be one way to promote creation of frugal technology, though it has the pitfall of being more market driven than of societal value,” the authors write in the book.

“This, to some extent, can be safeguarded by partnering with the user/consumer forums and local small/medium entrepreneurs, who are often more conversant with users’ problems at the ground level and also understand the limitations in adopting new solutions,” they say.

Pointing to six key areas – hunger and nutrition; climate change; air pollution; scarcity of safe drinking water; human health; and capacity building – the book states that “despite the threat, these challenges offer unique opportunities for development with frugal innovations paving the way. This is because from a consumerist point of view, not just developing economies, but the world at large will need to adopt a sustenance orientation”.

“The current trend, national policies, polity and intergovernmental conversations on science, technology and innovations; changing aspirations, lifestyles and needs of people; and growing awareness about the value of sustainable technology and eco-friendly lifestyle are going to be the key drivers of frugal innovations by the next decade,” the book states.

Contending that supportive software will play a key role in the road ahead, the book notes that the Indian software industry has made a mark in the global IT industry and is estimated to export software worth more than Rs 14 lakh crore ($200 billion) annually.

“This prowess can be leveraged for developing frugal solutions to be problems faced by India. A case in point is the Passport Seva Kendras that are being managed by TCS. Similarly, by roping in the expertise of Indian software firms, the government can build easy to access solutions particularly targeted at BOP (base of the pyramid) communities. The problems that can be solved using software expertise need to be identified, and suitable resources can be allocated to find solutions through software-enabled applications,” the book states.

The focus should be on finding quick sol utions to emergent problems because delay in many cases nullifies the basic purpose of offering a solution, such as a crucial medical situation or expert guidance on fixing a machine that breaks down in the field, particularly to the people at BOP.

“A good example is the Aarogya Setu app, launched by the Indian government for containment of the Covid-19 virus, by tracking the location of every Covid-19 positive person and providing this information in real time through a mobile app,” the authors write.

The time has come, the book says, “for resource-deficient and overpopulated nations like India to enable development of solutions that are simple, affordable and accessible. Whether it’s the requirement of new/better products for consumption, need to address social challenges or to develop effective processes for governance, innovations alone can show us the way forward. While the market will drive the demand for innovations, the success of the developed solutions will squarely depend on their acceptability by the consumers”.

“And, to ensure equitable distribution of goods and services, frugal innovations alone can be expected to deliver on the promise,” the authors write.

“While government programmes must support with enabling policies, test beds and adequate development funding, other partners like industry, academia, NGOs, etc., should complement the efforts in the R&D ecosystem, where passionate innovators and willing institutions have embedded the mission of frugal innovations in the philosophy of sustainable growth for all,” the authors maintain.

(Vishnu Makhijani can be reached at vishnu.makhijani@ians.in)

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