Leapfrogging the World with Frugal Innovation

This article originally appeared on Livemint.

On the surface, India is not an innovation economy. We have too few patents for a country of our size and very few globally path-breaking products have been invented here. We lack a tradition of people starting businesses which go on to undermine the business models of big companies, and we haven't invented many new industries (with the notable exception of information technology or IT Services). Even the current e-commerce wave is a derivative of what has happened in the West, and in some ways has significantly lagged behind other parts of the world.


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This lack of innovation is part inevitable and part ironic given the ubiquity of jugaad—improvised, flexible solutions that offer a low-cost, quick, and creative fix to local problems. Jugaad in itself is quite innovative, in a narrow sense of the word. But this paradox is not unique to India; it is a wider emerging market phenomenon. Given the institutional vacuum and resource constraints that most emerging markets operate in, it is natural that most have their own version of jugaad, right down to a unique word for it—Brazilians call it gambiarra, the Chinese call it zizhu chuangxin, and Kenyans, jua kali.

Innovation is the rich world’s game. Developing new products that can scale takes significant investments in cash, talent, and other resources which our companies can’t afford; sizeable public investment in pure science and higher education which we haven’t made; and easily available capital for entrepreneurs and companies which we have always been lacking.

Will we have to get rich before we get innovative? Or do we innovate along dimensions traditionally unexplored by the Western world?

Read the full article at Livemint.

Nikhil Prasad Ojha is a partner with Bain & Company and the co-editor of the Mint-Bain series on 25 Years of Reforms. Dinkar Ayilavarapu is a partner in the firm and a key member of Bain’s Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) practice in the Asia-Pacific region.