Innovation Monitor: Jugaad or “Reverse” Innovation

NYC Media Lab
6 min readJun 26, 2020


Innovation Monitor: Jugaad or “Reverse” Innovation

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This week, we’re looking to creatively innovating within constraints. Jugaad, a term from India, is the art of creative problem-solving in a frugal manner. Even if you haven’t heard the term, you’re most likely familiar with the concept: a quick, frugal hack — just by a different name. We get watered-down versions with, DIY home hacks on Pinterest, YouTube, Tangi, and other forms of MacGyverism. We’re drawing upon often overlooked and unrecognized case studies from around the world to spark innovation.

Jugaad arises from necessity. And in much of the world where wasteful over-engineering has historically been standard practice, the concept didn’t catch on until relatively recently. As a business philosophy, “Frugal Innovation” gained popularity when controversial, former Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn applied frugal engineering to the design and development of the Tata Nano, the world’s cheapest car, for the Indian market. (Tata ceased production of the Nano a few years back.)

To get to the real Jugaad, we must go to the source — Southeast Asia. The wiki page for Frugal Innovation has some notable examples, like India’s Jaipur leg (it’s an amazing story), a low-cost, more comfortable prosthetic that’s ~$150 to manufacture, the Nokia 1100, which sold 200M units within four years of its introduction, and solar light bulbs in the Philippines, made from one-liter soda bottles filled with water and bleach.

Jugaad has inspired entrepreneurs like Stanford grads Jane Chen and Rahul Panicker, who co-founded the affordable incubator nonprofit Embrace, working with village pediatricians and patients in rural India to optimize the design; and YES Bank, a leading Indian private bank that enabled mobile payment solutions for those without a bank account. The bank partnered with Nokia and Obopay, a mobile payment platform that also teamed up with Citi and major telcos to service millions of under-banked Americans.

Using Jugaad to design products for developing economies and then exporting them to developed countries has been called “Reverse Innovation,” because “it’s the opposite of the traditional approach of creating products for advanced economies first.” (It was first described in 2009, in HBR’s How GE Is Disrupting Itself.)

This challenges the notion that wealthier nations lead the innovation economy. In reality, solutions and cutting-edge innovations from the developing world can, have, and will continue to transform, inform, and lead wealthier economies. This requires us to recognize assumptions, and learn, listen and widen our perspectives.

Similar approaches are now being suggested for the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had a more pervasive impact on Europe and the US, where death rates per million are in the triple digits, than on Hong Kong, Thailand, and some African countries, where these rates are in the single digits. Limited resources and unparalleled experience fighting epidemics like SARS, MERS, Ebola, and TB have surfaced true Jugaad in these nations.

Below, you’ll learn how reverse engineering is being applied to COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, PPE manufacture, and other solutions for the current crisis and post-pandemic world.

“Clever, but crude.” Anand Mahindra, chairman at business conglomerate Mahindra Group, reposted a clip of Jugaad in action, a DIY contactless store:

One last note, make sure to check out our upcoming prototyping challenge, in partnership with Consumer Reports. We’re incredibly excited to tackle the challenges around consumer data & privacy (and this will also be the topic for next week’s edition!)

NYCML & Consumer Reports Consumer Data & Privacy Prototyping: Fall 2020 Open Challenge
About: Teams of university faculty and graduate students will work alongside the Consumer Reports’ Digital Labs team
Award: Selected teams will be awarded with a grant of up to $5,000 per team
The application deadline is Sunday, June 28, 2020 at 11:59pm EST

As always, we wish you and your community safety, calm, and solidarity as we support each other through this unprecedented time. Thank you again for reading.

All best,
Erica Matsumoto Frugal Innovation for Today’s and Tomorrow’s Crises

Stanford Social Innovation Review analyzed responses to the pandemic from around the world, grouping those that applied the underlying principles of frugal innovation — reuse, repurpose, recombine, and rapidity. Some examples:

  • Reuse: “Creative solutions [for PPE] include using a hole puncher and overhead transparencies… to make protective shields. As a short-term measure, [US VP] Mike Pence… asked the construction industry to donate their respirators to the health care sector.”
  • Repurpose: “In Senegal, researchers repurposed a Dengue fever test kit to develop a $1 coronavirus version that gets results in just 10 minutes.”
  • Recombine: “The Chinese built a 1,000-bed hospital from scratch in 10 days using pre-fabricated construction techniques used mainly in large-scale housing developments.”
  • Rapidity: The British gov’t initially went with Dyson’s design for a quick-to-manufacture ventilator (which the company spent $25M to prototype), but ended up going with a frugal innovation approach by the VentilatorChallengeUK consortium, which “reused existing production capacity, repurposed one of its member’s existing anesthesia products, and recombined members’ individual sector-specific strengths.”

Stanford Social Innovation Review — 8 min read Read More Use Jugaad to Innovate Faster, Cheaper, Better

An early 2011 HBR piece on Jugaad, which provides a more fleshed out definition of what the philosophy is and its various aspects.

“Jugaad innovators don’t use linear, pre-planned, time-consuming R&D processes. Rather, they rely heavily on rapid prototyping techniques — i.e., they collaborate intimately with customers and use their constant feedback to zero in on the most relevant product features.”

HBR — 5 min read Read More Jugaad Innovation: How to Disrupt-It-Yourself

Think With Google’s 2012 piece on Jugaad — it has an interesting section on younger consumers’ mindset shift towards sustainable solutions.

“In his book, Professor Prabhu tells the story of Yuri Malina and Mert Iseri, two young American entrepreneurs who co-founded SwipeSense, a portable hand-sanitizing device that doctors can clip to their scrubs. ‘They did this partly out of social conscience, but also because they relished the challenge of doing it in a skunkworks way,’ he says.”

Think with Google — 4 min read Read More Engineering Reverse Innovations

One of the authors of this HBR long-read, Amos Winter, spent six years designing an off-road wheelchair for people in developing countries, called the Leveraged Freedom Chair, which is “80% faster and 40% more efficient to propel than a conventional wheelchair, and it sells for approximately $250 — on par with other developing world wheelchairs.”

The article takes the authors’ experience working with multinationals and the design process of the wheelchair to lay out five traps companies face entering emerging markets — and the reverse innovation principles to apply in order to avoid them.

HBR — 24 min read

Read More Using Reverse Innovation to Fight Covid-19

HBR compiles the lessons learned from various countries on fighting the pandemic. Some key examples include:

  • South Korea: “One innovation, generally attributed to South Korea, is to use drive-through sites in which people are tested while still in their cars. This simple idea has already diffused widely across the U.S., and companies like Walmart and Walgreens are joining the trend.”
  • Africa: “Applying learning from African contact-tracing practices,” workers in Massachusetts “made 8,000 to 10,000 calls daily, then followed patients through the quarantine and treatment periods. (The program is voluntary and has safeguards for data security and privacy.)”

HBR — 9 min read Read More This Week in Business History June 29, 1855: The Daily Telegraph begins publication following the repeal of the Newspaper Stamp Act.

The repeal Stamp Act, a famous example of a “Tax on Knowledge”, allowed for the flourishing of the newspaper industry in London. By 1870 the Daily Telegraph (to become the Telegraph) was the biggest selling newspaper in the world with a circulation of 270,000.

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