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Tapping Jugaad’s hidden wealth


Open heart surgery for $800? A clay fridge that doesn’t use electricity and keeps fresh food good for 4-5 days in a super hot climate? At a NESTA seminar a week or so ago, at the launch of Our Frugal Future, where developers of some of these path breaking types of products and services shared their experiences, a sharp question was posed. How do we make the most of the spirit of jugaad – not just in India but also in a world in the verge of a nervous breakdown?
What does jugaad mean? Well, according to the authors of Jugaad Innovation:

“Jugaad is a colloquial Hindi word that roughly translates as ‘‘an innovative fix; an improvised solution born from ingenuity and cleverness.’’ Jugaad is, quite simply, a unique way of thinking and acting in response to challenges; it is the gutsy art of spotting opportunities in the most adverse circumstances and resourcefully improvising solutions using simple means.”

The type of innovations that fall under the jugaad moniker – radically rethought products and services that are baked with frugality, flexibility ad inclusivity in mind, aimed at a massive lower income demographic – have been brilliant at giving people access to things that were previously not made for them. A welcome antidote to the Crown Crust Pizza type of innovation that is leading us to our multimorbid ends. Here is Professor Jaideep Prabhu explaing it in person:

It’s hard not to argue that making innovation leaner, smarter and more responsive to the needs of a changing world is ace and long overdue. And creating the business model that puts things like complex surgery within reach of millions is truly groundbreaking as well as bigging up grassroots entpreneurs often excluded from the the bigger conversation. But, maybe there it is the other side of jugaad and its many national variants, like Brazil’s ‘gambiarra’ for instance, that we need to nurture?

Personal, creative expression

For me, jugaad, or the gambiarra (insert national variant here ______), as you can see if you google image search the word, is not just about ‘innovation’ as we know it, or the latest management doosra (show me a C-suite away day where the mention of ‘doing more with less’ isn’t met with high fives all round). In many cases it is a personal, creative, often eccentric and flamboyant human expression. A sort of flair that is about people personalising their reality to make it work better for them. You can probably think of examples in your family or among your friends of the type of ‘hack’ I’m talking about. Something that someone can be very proud of, that is very ‘them’, that isn’t shop bought, that is a bit rough round the edges, but that does the job rather wonderfully.

And perhaps it is this universal spirit that all countries, North and South, should be looking to tap into to help us in some part climb out of the hole we are in. To get us closer to creating inclusive economies where those on the edges of a cash-money-eats-all world actually get a chance to flourish and are recognised for doing so by their family, friends, neighbours, employers, customers, governments on an equal footing with those at the centre. Where a type of familiar, normative landscape -i.e ‘Wow, I think your hack is cool and so does my Gran, she heard about it on BBC Breakfast News’ – is supported by institutional struts that encourages each and everyone of us to escape the cube farm and release our inner jugaad.

Inequality as a feature

Maybe it’s here that jugaad could have an impact as great as, if not greater than, what it has done to open up access to products and services honed out of adversity, binding constraints, tacit knowhow and experiential problem solving. Because in a world, advanced or not, where inequality is arcing upwards, and where the chances of living a good life are getting tougher, we need to find that something extra.

Take these three people. Person a) and person b) live in a so called ‘middle income’ country – where, by the way, we know there is the greatest incidence of poverty. For person a) to reach person b)’s income is going to take a lifetime of toil. And he may not get there. He certainly wont make it to person c) who lives a well off life in an advanced country.

Now of course, income is still core to well-being (as is access to education, healthcare and the like). But do we think that on today’s bigger, tougher planet, it’s just income, a set of public goods and more accessible private goods that are all we need to try and bridge these imbalances? My guess is that while this might have been a recipe that worked in the 20th century for a small, lucky group of countries – whose extension into the periphery for labour, resources and a high-returning home for idle capital was also quite handy – in today’s world, this mix isn’t going to be enough to cut it.

Tapping the spirit of jugaad

So can we use the spirit of jugaad not just to better serve a billion more people with frugally inspired products and services, but to create the conditions to let people unleash this hidden wealth and hack their realities better in their own personal and micro-revolutionary way? So instead of person a) busting a gut in a titanic, lifelong reach for the unobtanium, they can – along with person b) and c) – feel encouraged to tap into their hacker spirit, personalise their experiences and be recognised and rewarded by their community, employer etc for doing so.

What is neat about jugaad and its frugal essence is that shop-bought skills are not a requirement. So while, as above, they may all have an equal jugaad potential, it is not income, resource or birth coordinate dependent. The spirit of jugaad also fits into a panoply of potential fixes to the shifts and mega-challenges happening in both the North and the South. From the actual point of nurturing a nascent hacker/maker culture, to applying a handbrake to the global consumption conundrum, creating the conditions to help people tap into their inner jugaad can unlock the types of hidden wealth that governments and business are desperately seeking.

So imagine if instead of a billion more consumers trying to clamber their way up an income (and life satisfaction) ladder that has more in common with David Bowie’s perspective defying staircase scene in Labyrinth, the goal was a billion more people hacking their realities, personalising their world the gusto, flair and elan that the jugaad spirit espouses. A billion more people not beholden to what ‘best-interest-at-heart/shared value/watevs’ conglomerate x or y has conjured up for them. Not spending a lifetime running to stand still. The opportunities for retooled gov, biz and society to create this space is a generational project that could bear plenty of fruit -and the next generation might well thank us for it.

These are just some notes and an idea on what might be a good starting point. There are many holes but hopefully also lots of ways to jump forward from here. Do get in touch if you want to talk some more about any of this.

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