Scale up advanced frugal design principles

A widespread diffusion of the principle of frugality in the design and re-design of products will help to reduce environmental degradation and safeguard the basic functions of the world’s ecosystems.
Published in Sustainability
Scale up advanced frugal design principles

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For some years now, the business world has been discussing frugal innovations with great enthusiasm. Frugal innovation or frugal engineering refers to products that avoid non-essential elements and can therefore be manufactured and sold at a reasonable price. Typical examples are zero energy consumption refrigerators, solar cooking stoves, or portable ultrasounds.

However, the discussion about frugal innovations is mostly about attracting new consumers from lower income groups. Two essential aspects are neglected here. Firstly, frugal design can also be applied to technologically sophisticated products. This is sometimes referred to as advanced frugal innovations (e.g. a table-top particle accelerator). Secondly, frugal solutions require less resources over their entire life cycle and can therefore make an important contribution to achieve more sustainable modes of production and consumption. Both arguments imply that, in principle, all products can and should be frugalized.

Polluted river in Tamil Nadu, India. The excessive use of resources leads not only to resource scarcity but also to environmental pollution. Neighbouring residents can no longer benefit from simple eco-system services such as supply of clean water. (Source: Sebastian Losacker)

At the same time, it seems paradoxical that frugality has not yet established itself as a fundamental design principle, if less use of resources automatically translates to lower production costs. Our interdisciplinary team, with backgrounds in economic geography (Ingo Liefner and Sebastian Losacker) and engineering design (Balkrishna Rao) and a common interest in innovation research, explains this with so-called transition costs. We argue that transition costs must be overcome in order to widely implement frugality as a design principle. These costs consist, for example, of the adaptation of supply networks, production chains, machines and infrastructures.

We believe that two essential measures must be taken. Firstly, financial policy support for companies will be necessary to adjust production processes. Secondly, it will be important to teach engineers, technicians and managers how to produce and sell frugal products. Here educational institutions such as universities and colleges are responsible for incorporating the ideas of frugal design into their teaching programs. Our aim with this short article is to reveal the potential of a frugal way of production. We hope that especially companies, educational institutions and policymakers will strive to strengthen frugality as a fundamental design principle.

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