Asian Innovation: Frugal Ideas Are Spreading from East to West

Monday, April 2, 2012

THE Tata Nano, the world’s cheapest car, became a symbol before the first one rolled off the production line in 2009. The Tata group, India’s most revered conglomerate, hyped it as the embodiment of a revolution. Frugal innovation would put consumer products, of which a $2,000 car was merely a foretaste, within reach of ordinary Indians and Chinese. Asian engineers would reimagine Western products with all the unnecessary frills stripped out. The cost savings would be so huge that frugal ideas would conquer the world. The Nano would herald India’s arrival just as the Toyota once heralded Japan’s.

Alas, the miracle car was dogged with problems from the first. Protesting farmers forced Tata Motors to move production out of one Indian state and into another. Early sales failed to catch fire, but some of the cars did, literally. Rural customers showed little desire to shift from trucks to cars. The Nano’s failure to live up to the hype raises a bigger question. Is frugal innovation being oversold? Can Western companies relax?

Two new books—“Reverse Innovation” by Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble, and “Jugaad Innovation” by Navi Radjou, Jaideep Prabhu and Simone Ahuja—suggest that the answer to both questions is No. Mr Govindarajan, of the Tuck Business School at Dartmouth College, has advised General Electric on frugal innovation and co-written a path-breaking article on the subject with GE’s boss, Jeff Immelt. “Jugaad Innovation” is the most comprehensive book yet to appear on the subject (jugaad is a Hindi word meaning a clever improvisation). The books show that frugal innovation is flourishing across the emerging world, despite the gurus’ failure to agree on a term to describe it. They also argue convincingly that it will change rich countries, too.

Multinationals are beginning to take ideas developed in (and for) the emerging world and deploy them in the West. Harman, an American company that makes infotainment systems for cars, developed a new system for emerging markets, dubbed “Saras”, the Sanskrit word for “flexible”, using a simpler design and Indian and Chinese engineers. In 2009 Harman enrolled Toyota as a customer. GE’s Vscan, a portable ultrasound device that allows doctors to “see” inside patients, was developed in China and is now a hit in rich and poor countries alike. (Mr Immelt believes that these devices will become as indispensable as stethoscopes.) Walmart, which created “small mart stores” to compete in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, is reimporting the idea to the United States.

Source: The Economist (link opens in a new window)

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