Become rich by designing products for the poor?

Earlier this year, Amit Gulati, who runs Incubis Consultants, invited me to participate in an interactive session to think through design ideas for a low-cost washing machine. The workshop brought out some very interesting and fascinating ‘ways of seeing’¬†that completely overturned the engineering / tech / product way of approaching design problems. Did we need to redesign the washing machine (Product) under stricter constraints [this is the way most people think ‚Äď start with an existing product, strip it of features, use cheaper materials and processes, reduce quality and make it low-cost], or did we need to go up a level and reframe the problem itself.

Orbits of Influence

 

Image Courtesy: Incubis Consultants 2013.

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In the old days — as recently as the dying years of the last century — technology was trying to keep up with our needs. But instead of playing catch up, its pace overtook our needs. In the end, technology, especially those products that were powered by the silicon chip, won the race. Today we have more technology than we need and yet, rather than using what already exists to solve societal problems, we still go after creating more and more technology for the narrowest part of the pyramid — the top. Continue reading Become rich by designing products for the poor?

Jugaadonomix – The real picture

Jugaad popularly referred to as ‘frugal-innovation’ has become quite a buzz-word. Borrowed from Indian colloquial for “a quick fix”, Jugaad is being touted world-wide as the “frugal and flexible approach to innovation”. HBR defines Jugaad as …

…” a Hindi word that loosely translates as “the gutsy art of overcoming harsh constraints by improvising an effective solution using limited resources.”¬†Jugaad is an antidote to the complexity of India: a country of mind-blogging diversity; pervasive scarcity of all kinds; and exploding interconnectivity.

Which according to us is not quite the complete definition. Hailing from the land where this word originated and seeing it in play all around us, on a daily basis, for so many years, we do believe we understand the essence of the term and hope this post will help communicate it. You see a “quick-fix” is just that – a “quick-fix”. Sure it applies innovative thinking – a brilliant spark of inspiration that can help you overcome a problem and find a solution – but one that will hold just long enough till you can find a permanent solution to the problem. Or maybe even in situations where you don’t actually need a permanent solution.

Jugaad can be thought of as a survival tactic. It is sometimes even equated with street-smartness. It could be a safety pin to hold together a rip in your shirt, old gift-wrapper paper kept to be reused, a tape to fix a broken pair of spectacles. Does it work? Sure. Is it safe? Is it sustainable.

In the same vein, do examples like Tata Nano actually deserve to be filed under Innovation? Is it actually alright to make a car cheaper while compromising on the safety of the parts and technology used?

Here are a few pictures we illustrated as well as collected from our environment to depict examples of Jugaad to you. We leave it up to you to draw your own conclusions by the end of it.

A coke bottle being used a water sprayer
Broken spectacles fixed with duct tape – Safe? Sustainable?
Safety pin used to fix slippers strap – Safe?
Dipping tire in water to detect location of puncture – Hygienic? Fool Proof?
A village kid playing with his toy(tire) – Safe? Clean?
Vehicle made by mounting diesel engine on wooden cart – Safe? Sustainable?
Ladder and wooden sheet used for shade – Safe? Sustainable?
Sign board used for shelter and living – Safe?
Make shift saloon by road side
Make shift saloon by road side – Hygienic? Sustainable?
Carrying multiple jars on one bicycle
A mobile store on a bicycle using sacks as shelves – Sustainable?

Like we said, the above examples of Jugaad can be tested against measures like safety, sustainability, fulfillment of one’s desires or aspirations, to see whether Jugaad should actually qualify at the same level as Innovation. Is “good enough” enough? We welcome your comments.

Here are some more interesting reads that you might want to read:

  1. Jugaad has hurt India a lot
  2. Use Jugaad to Innovate Faster, Cheaper, Better
  3. Can ‘Jugaad’ Get to Core U.S. Problems?
  4. Frugal Innovation: Lessons from Carlos Ghosn, CEO, Renault-Nissan
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Tata Bye Bye – The Great Debate

Tata, the flagship Indian conglomerate, reaped rich benefits of the free publicity (rumoured to be to the extent of Rs. 500 crores) by announcing the Nano. The company was praised for its frugal innovation.

Image Reference:http://www.crazyengineers.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Tata-Nano-Starter-Motor-Replace-Tata-Motor.jpg
What followed after a status update by Sunil Malhotra was this Facebook battle of wits on 26th March 2012, between Umesh Nevgi and Sunil Malhotra on the relevance of the world’s cheapest car, Tata’s Nano.

We reproduce the great debate for you here and welcome your perspective

Hi Sunil, I have not read any market report or feedback on the Nano. However, I wonder whether is it still not a better & relatively safer option and, hence, an upgrade worthwhile for the numerous families who ride three-up or four-up on a scooter through the busy lanes? I understand this was the vision of Ratan Tata behind it.

Umesh, vision is an outmoded concept IMO. Ratan Tata, no disrespect to his calibre or great achievements, screwed up big time here. The Nano is the outcome of the idea of someone sitting in a customised S-Class Merc and looking at life around him through tinted glasses (all puns intended). How far removed from reality can anyone get? The many plusses in the run up to the launch of the 2000 dollar car are completely overshadowed by the sheer irrelevance to the context of the customer. Sorry, but in my book the only phrase that comes to mind is regressive innovation.


Sunil, product placement‚Äď imho ‚Ästis not an outmoded concept ‚Ästnot yet at the least. There is a place in the marketplace for a Nano to a S-Class Merc and beyond ‚Ästto suit every pocket, need, want, wish and whim. Admittedly, the Nano may not be an ideal car (I did read some questions raised about its safety levels), however‚Äď let‚Äôs face it- it is a no-frills car. This itself perhaps should not be the reason for writing off this car altogether. Hopefully, the safety aspect does get improved –¬†within the given cost constraints –¬†for the next upgrade of this car. Finally, as for any product from a toothbrush to a car, striking the right balance between its cost and its quality is always critical. Key q : Is the Nano of today really a more dangerous vehicle on the roads than a scooter ridden –¬†rather perched upon precariously- by a family of four in a busy rush-hour traffic? If not, then would we still call this ‚Äėinnovation‚Äô regressive?

I agree with most of what you say but that is a product centric view at best Umesh. From a social relevance perspective, aspiration and image of the target segment have been ignored. Not intentionally maybe, but overlooked at the very least. One is not writing off the car at all –¬†it is a great example of no-frills product engineering. But it has failed the test of the market and the consumer. There are hardly any Nanos on the road 3 years down. That speaks for itself. Hail the market. Hail the intelligent Indian. BTW the starting point imho of the scooter is what I‚Äôve always questioned. My early take even before the launch were published 3-4 years ago in a slightly different context. Car Ke Side Effects
Prophetic or not, you decide.

Download the PDF

Hi Sunil, enjoying this debate‚Ķ reminds of our hostel years. Read your article –¬†great stuff! I can see where you are coming from –¬†your concerns et al –¬†and I would tend to agree with many of the points/concepts within… corporate social responsibility, the risks of creating a problem while solving another, the legacy of ‚Äėdo now, think later‚Äô policy. Social relevance –¬†a key issue indeed. However, I would largely disagree with shifting the entire responsibility for social implications of any product towards the corporate world. The government and –¬†more importantly –¬†we the people shoulder a much MUCH larger responsibility for this. The softer side of this issue –¬†the need for traffic literacy, discipline & fairness on the roads, compliance to law¬†– would need to be met rather through an efficient system of rules & regulations –¬†including extensive monitoring for compliances and severe reprimands/penalties for any non-compliances to such laws. Such an onus for –¬†in your words –¬†a holistic and sustainable approach rests primarily on the lawmakers and the populace alike. Same would hold good for the infrastructure¬†– or, more precisely, the current lack of it. One can not penalise or hold responsible the Tatas for this –¬†beyond their share of responsibility, of course. Secondly, although a climb towards an ideal & disciplined world is the ultimate target, such improvements seldom come in large leaps and often come in baby steps. I reckon the Nano is one such baby step –¬†faltering though it could be. My main support for the Nano rests on the fact that it upgrades the scooter-riding four-up family towards a relatively safer commute. This by itself has a significant social relevance, I hope you agree. If solving a larger problem means living with a new & relatively smaller problem, then so be it. We now then resolve the new smaller problem. One point I would however differ on with the Tatas is that, I think, in the rush towards the world‚Äôs cheapest car, the Tatas set themselves super-ultra-low cost and, thus, safety targets. Increasing the cost target to, say, double the current target would have helped to achieve higher safety-levels and, as a byproduct, also control the projected sudden and exponential volume explosion.

Beautiful point about Tatas having set a low target (pun intended), Umesh. That’s what irked me about India’s best brand.

 

Good pun, Sunil. I better understand your irk now. Not having a direct exposure to the Nano, I am not aware of all the issues related to this car in the field. I do find the original intent of bringing the car to the masses as worthwhile. However, based upon the reports I have read, Tatas seemingly have cut large corners and gone overboard in their zest to come up with such a cost-effective vehicle. Hopefully, they now rectify this and come up with a better balance between the cost and the features –¬†perhaps a Micro than a Nano.

LOL! Now that they have proven the low-cost point, they should perhaps think of repositioning it as a campus vehicle for students in the US. And, yes no excuses for compromising safety.

 

Sunil, now that we have discussed and decided to evolve the Nano into a Micro –¬†repositioned with better safety features and a slightly higher but relative to the market still a lower price, this executive decision just simply needs to be conveyed to the Tatas. :)

Hahaha! On a more serious note, corporates (I just made a typo that works even better- corpirates) would be better off moving from business cases to business causes, don’t you think. But they will never get it.

That‚Äôs a bit harsh on the corporate world, Sunil –¬†I think. Tatas may have got the balance wrong, but that seems to be just a case of a business strategy gone upside down –¬†can be still rectified at a cost, market forces will ensure that anyway. I reckon the crux of the issue here –¬†the lack of infrastructure / traffic literacy / discipline¬†– boils down to the lack of a strong will from the governments over the years to improve the system in parallel. A willing & empowered governance can literally work wonders to the system and be complimentary to the works of entrepreneurs like Tata –¬†and then the consumer wins. Remember Paan Singh Tomar : bihar mein to sirf baagi rehte hai, asli daaku to sansad mein rehte hai. Perhaps too strong/filmy/exaggerated/‚ÄĚgeneralised a statement that is, but –¬†unfortunately- not totally opposite from the truth either.

Call me disillusioned. Doing business in India has never been easy especially for those who do not want to bend the rules for their own selfish needs. The Government has been the main culprit, but what sustains Government apathy is the need for greed and power by corporates and our hugely corruptible media. Let me hasten to add that Tata is one of the few companies that has always upheld ethical practices and is a role model for the whole world. It might even be the only Indian Corporate in my book that is incorruptible. But that is the topic of another discussion. But the rest of India Inc. –¬†the less said the better.

Sunil, I fully understand your disillusionment and frustration. I also share your views on Tata (and hence my hesitation to blame them). Tata is perhaps the only visible one, however I am sure there are few more –¬†including one I know in Okhla Phase I, albeit in minority. However, in spite of all the adversities, stay positive –¬†that is the only way to beat the system‚Ķ¬†eventually. Look at it this way¬†–¬†at the end of the day, not having bent the rules would bring in the inner satisfaction to oneself that having joined the ‚Äėclub‚Äô would never ever fetch in. Easier said than done –¬†¬†however this would always remain THE challenge. It is more than a marathon –¬†stay put and stay the course, my friend. I assure you –¬†the distant & faint light at the end of this long tunnel is not of any train.

Read the original debate on Facebook

Download – Car ke Side Effects(PDF), ¬†Innovation 101 –¬†The Jugaad phenomenon, ¬†Car Ke Side Effects