A look back at CFIA's first scientific conference on Frugal Innovation


Frugal Innovation: a thermometer on your forehead.

Making modern gadgets suitable for use in developing countries. This is one of the explanations of ‘frugal innovation’. How this concepts works could have been discovered in Leiden on the 7th and 8th of November.

Many African mothers ‘measure’ with their hands on their child’s forehead if they have a fever. A forehead meter is now being developed with a light indicating whether the temperature is too high.

The forehead thermometer, devised by the LUMC and the faculty of Industrial Design at TU Delft, is a result of the Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa, a collaboration between Leiden University, Erasmus University Rotterdam and Delft University of Technology. The centre, founded in 2013, held and international conference in Museum Volkenkunde on Tuesday 7 and Wednesday 8 November: ‘Frugal Innovation for Sustainable Global Development.’

Frugal Innovation can be translated as: sober innovation, meant for the poor population in poor countries, to fight poverty and increase sustainability. For example, it concerns affordable water filters, a mobile payment system, cheap mobile phones, lighting with solar cells. ‘Innovative products that are low-priced, says co-director Cees van Beers.

The centre conducts scientific research into the background of the innovations, for example towards innovation management, and stimulates the development of products, such as the frugal thermometer (‘without battery’) and cheap weather stations that allow farmers to be alerted in time for a monsoon.

The conference attended by scientists, policy makers and entrepreneurs was intended to exchange scientific knowledge and experiences, to expand networks and to set up partnerships. Several speakers emphasize that it is mainly from the local population to think: what do people need, how can you involve small entrepreneurs in the plans, how can you cooperate with the local communities.

Cold water fear
Van Beers, professor of innovation management in Delft, observes that large Western companies often have cold fears to tap into the ‘ frugal’ market. ‘They think: we do not have relevant consumers there. But you have to make consumers relevant. Because it can certainly be a great succes. For example, General Electric has made mobile devices for heart movies. You send the data to a hospital and that determines what needs to be done. They started with it in rural India, but now they also want them in America, instead of expensive fixed equipment.’

A company that is willing, is Philips. The aim of the health branch of the multinational is to improve the lives of three billion people by 2025, for example by using an electric toothbrush or in a Philips scan. There are now 2.1 billion, and the largest growth is in Africa and Asia, according to Maarten van Herpen, head of the Africa Innovation Hub of Philips and keynote speaker at the conference. For example, Philips makes a belly band to register the breathing of young children in Africa, where pneumonia is common and often fatal.

To learn
Frugal Innovation is a story with two sides - Western countries can also learn from the innovations. Or, as some speakers emphasize, that is even necessary if for example you look at sustainability and the high healthcare costs in Europe and North America.

The subject is attracting more and more attention, says Van Beers. Bachelor students from the three universities (Leiden-Delft-Erasmus) can follow the Frugal Innovation for Sustainable Global Development minor from September 2018, with a practical internship abroad in the second part.

Note: This article was first published in Dutch on the Leiden University Website.
          This is an English translation of the original report.  
           Read the original post in Dutch

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