How hacking helped build one of the world’s largest economies

How Hacking Helped Build One of the World’s Largest Economies / CSP

Anyone who has been to the ancient Indian city of Varanasi must believe in the existence of God. The city is the epitome of disorder, yet, somehow, everything works.

Varanasi represents the spiritual side of India, one that makes peace with the idea that life itself is an illusion. The unstructured way of somehow making things work could either be the handiwork of God or people's instinct to innovate in funny little ways depending on the availability or, rather, unavailability of resources. In this case, the latter is probably true.

People in developing countries with fewer resources, such as in India, have developed the ability to create more from less. They are inclined towards developing sustainable solutions from the limited resources available to them, although they may not always succeed in doing so. For example, a remote village may not have a constant supply of electricity; however, the families that live there may have access to a low-cost fridge that does not run on electricity – Mitti Cool is a refrigerator made of clay that keeps vegetables fresh for up to five days. Or, for instance, a street might be in need of cleaning, and the solution could be a bicycle that also works as a broom that sweeps the street as you ride the bicycle.

This kind of innovation, which springs from a lack of resources, is called Jugaad in colloquial Hindi and in the Punjabi language. In other words, it is hacking life, the Indian way. Here it is important to emphasize that the concept of Jugaad, or frugal innovation, which refers to the process of reducing the complexity and cost of an item of goods and its production, is not exclusively Indian.

Examples of such thinking can be found in the wealthier West, too. A small British firm, specialising in 360-degree projections for entertainment, for instance, wanted to reproduce the effect of an airline simulator projected inside a dome, for festival-goers to relax inside. But the simulator was so expensive that it was out of reach for the task at hand. The lack of funds forced the firm to think frugally. So they made their own 360-degree system using projectors they adapted from regular ones used in classrooms, and made their dream of a festival simulator come true. Tesla’s game-changing Powerwall batteries enable homes and businesses to store solar energy and power from the grid, thus reducing electricity bills for the user by up to 25%.

These batteries are a classic example of frugal innovation from India. Another famous example of frugal innovation from India, probably inspired by the fact that, in Indian villages, families of four are often seen squeezed onto a single scooter, is the Tata Nano, the world’s cheapest family car. In countries like India, frugal innovation is practised not only by conglomerates like Tata, but also by the common man, leading to life hacks which are rarely sophisticated in nature. In fact, sometimes they may just be quick and dirty DIY solutions.

Sometimes they those from the developed world in order to make a point about removing elitism from innovation. Jugaad, or frugal innovation, is based on one simple rule: there is no rule. It’s about doing whatever it takes to make things work your way. If the conventions do not permit this, change the conventions. If your audience does not approve of it, change your audience. If the cost is astronomical, do it on a shoestring. The bottom line is, if the solution resonates with one individual it is bound to resonate with others.

However, frugal innovation does not necessarily mean innovation that is cheap or of an inferior quality. It simply means finding a way to get the optimum efficiency by using materials economically, so that the solution or product is accessible to those it is intended for, both in terms of price as well as distribution. Frugal innovation comes from nameless villagers in remote India often with no proper means of transport.

That’s why, from what I understand, Mr Anil Gupta, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA), travels around India on foot in order to find young people who have ideas but neither the funds nor the resources to get those ideas into the wider world. Thanks to Mr Gupta’s work such people are acknowledged for their inventions even though they have neither formal education nor a desire to be in the limelight.

Consider a non-stick Teflon pan. Let’s say it costs about $10. Use it for a few months and the Teflon surface starts to come off. Although it’s not meant to be eaten, bits of the surface will inevitably be consumed with meals. Now consider a non-stick pan made of clay, such as the one made by Mansukhbhai Prajapati. It costs less than a dollar. And, clay being a natural material, it works better than a Teflon-coated nonstick pan, and it does not end up in your stomach. So it’s energy-efficient, healthier, better and much more affordable than Teflon.

Additional proof that quality does not always have to come at a huge cost. Another case in point: India does not have a healthcare insurance system provided by the government; most healthcare expenses are paid out of patients’ pockets. It is the private sector players who dominate the healthcare industry in India, making quality healthcare a very effective but also a very expensive affair. This naturally means that the poor in India need frugally innovative solutions to maintain their health.

It was important to give the hope of good cardiac care to billions of people who have comparatively weak hearts, as proven by numerous medical studies. 1 Cardiologist Dr Devi Shetty started running the Narayana Hrudayalaya Heart Hospital in Bangalore with one objective in mind: to remove the association of healthcare from affluence. In his hospital at least 600 open-heart surgeries are performed every week at one-tenth of the cost of an open-heart surgery performed in the United States. Yet the mortality rate thirty days after the surgery at Narayana Hrudayalaya Hospital is 1.27%, and the infection rate for a coronary artery bypass graft procedure is 1%, which is as good as that of US hospitals.

The cost of the entire procedure is one-tenth of that in the United States simply because Dr Shetty came up with a model that leveraged economies of scale. He built large hospitals and attracted many poor patients through micro-insurance schemes, a kind of insurance plan meant to protect low-income households, by having them pay much lower premiums than regular insurance schemes.

If hospitals were run like no-frills airlines, for instance, or if air conditioning was limited to operating theatres or intensive care units, or if they were run like Walmart,leading to cheaper prices for expensive things like heart valves bought in bulk, we would have a frugally innovative model like Narayana Hrudayalaya Hospital. Once the doctors started adopting this model, they realised that as they operated on more patients, the results got better and the costs got lower. It is possible to innovate under all circumstances, as in case of Dr Devi Shetty, while being generous and philanthro scissors, so that they can cut pieces of cloth without having to measure them first.

They can see at a glance exactly when they have to stop cutting. And then there is a plethora of everyday examples, including sunglasses with built-in music players, the potato-powered digital clock and the chandelier made of plastic bottles. When you reduce the number of resources you have to work with, you have to think differently. There is increasing evidence that limited resources and makeshift thinking can be scaled to Western markets and to the wider world. Innovation need not always be extravagant.

For instance, General Electric made a highly affordable ECG machine for the poor in India by cleverly cutting costs. Among other things, GE produced a small printer to print bus tickets, which made the ECG machine much more affordable. But this ECG machine did not just sell in India, it also sold in ninety other countries. Speaking of democratising medical facilities, victims of accidents often cannot afford top-quality prosthetic limbs.

One temple sculptor was frustrated by this, and went on to design and make prosthetic limbs from simple materials like wood and rubber. They are available for less than $45 and are worn by at least 20,000 people every year. Of course, they may not be the most advanced prosthetic limbs in the world but they allow amputees to run, sit cross-legged and even squat.

This temple sculptor’s Jugaad has led Stanford University and D-Rev to collaborate and develop a $20 prosthetic knee joint that can be assembled in less than an hour. In 2009 it was named by Time magazine as one of the fifty best inventions in the world, just another example of a liberating idea conceived under financial constraints, that has spread beyond the boundaries of India. Innovation is possible for everyone – not just the privileged and the wealthy but also the poorest of the poor, the everyman, in every developing country.

Countries like India, Brazil, China, Indonesia and Kenya. From the local honey seller Mohammed Saidullah, who created an amphibious bicycle, to Mr Markani, who created a water-fuelled car, there are thousands of small-town innovators in India who are naturally inventive but not necessarily well educated. Indeed, maybe it is this very lack of education that helps open minds towards new possibilities.

Maybe an educated mind follows too many rules, and does not ask enough questions. But an uneducated mind is lateral, simple and ridiculously audacious. Imagine the hidden creativity within so many people – people with ideas that may not change the world, but will bring about a change to their own world, which may be full of hardships and inconveniences.

The most important thing about Jugaad is that it thrives on chaos and uncertainty. India is probably the most chaotic country in the world: elephants blocking traffic; cow dung used as fuel; superstitious scientists; the power of mind over matter; more than a billion people screaming to get their voices heard in the world’s largest democracy; spiritual and non-materialistic ideologies clashing with the ambition of the country to become an economic powerhouse; a rising number of small enterprises with a do or die approach to success despite all the red tape involved. Common Indian wisdom has it that nothing in the world is constant.

Hence Indians are comfortable with chaos and unpredictability, which suits their mindset of Jugaad just fine. In the future India may continue to be disorganised for a while – a terrible thing for civilised existence as understood by the Western world perhaps – but an ideal way for looking at the world upside down and coming up with new ideas that make people’s lives easier.

Perhaps within this hacker mentality, this impulse to fix problems on a daily basis, lies the potential for a country to fix larger, more global problems, to scale the solutions to a bigger target audience and finally make not just their own world, but the wider world, a better place.

Ravi Deshpande is founder and chairman at Whyness Worldwide. This is an extract from Creative Social’s latest book, Creative Superpowers: Equip yourself for the Age of Creativity’.

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