Mapping the Future, One Frugal Innovation at a Time

What comes to mind when you hear the word “innovation”? Is it a self-piloting, electric car outfitted with its own sound studio and touch screen operating system? Is it a sleek, new mobile phone that allows you to scroll with your eyes, watch YouTube videos and check your email all at once?

Or, is it a clay container—one that’s used to refrigerate food without electricity and costs about $50?

The “MittiCool Refrigerator” is a clay refrigerator developed for rural India. (Image Source:

While it’s certainly true that advances in telecommunications, IT, material science and other technologies have made significant improvements to everyday life and society at large, it’s easy to get enamored by the new and next, obsess over products with spec layered upon spec, and forget that some of the most meaningful innovations can also be much humbler in their make.

The aforementioned clay refrigerator, far from conjuring images of cutting-edge technology, is a low-tech invention that draws on basic principles of evaporation and air circulation. It was designed by Mansukhabhai Prajapati, an Indian potter whose livelihood was devastated by a 2001 earthquake in India. After much trial and error, the “Mitticool refrigerator” was born; it’s been winning innovation awards and helping mitigate India’s food security and electricity access problems ever since.

There are literally thousands more innovations of this same sensibility—frugal innovations that go back to the root of invention: necessity, not convincing consumers they want something they never even knew they needed.  Frugal innovations work within resource and institutional constraints to create products and services that reduce cost, save time, and improve quality or efficiency. Very often, frugal innovations have a social component to them.

Particularly in the developing world, these kinds of innovations have a huge potential for transforming lives and developing local markets. In “Our Frugal Future,” a report released last year by UK-based charity NESTA, frugal innovations are held up as examples of how low-cost and regionally-tailored goods and services can end up outperforming costlier alternatives and be scaled up. In a way, frugal innovations are the answer to the mismatched donations and culturally inappropriate aid we sometimes hear of in the development sector.

The problem is, frugal innovations don’t typically generate the kind of buzz that flashier products and services do. To turn more attention towards this, the Social Innovation Lab at BRAC, the world’s largest nonprofit organization, has developed the Innovation Ecosystem map. It’s a crowdsourced digital map that shows where innovations are taking place across South Asia. Users can submit reports of organizations doing innovative work, and the BRAC team reviews the reports before putting the organizations on the map.

(Click to be taken to the live map.)

“With this project, [BRAC] hopes to increase awareness about the volume of innovation that is occurring in South Asia, to foster more of a South-South exchange, and to increase local NGOs participation in the international development dialogue,” explained Amanda Misiti, the Social Innovation Lab’s Knowledge Management and Communications Officer. “We want to make it easier for South Asian organizations and international partners to learn and connect with South Asian innovators.”

The map—itself an innovation in its melding of the ancient art and science of cartography to a digital platform—helps to quickly visualize and underscore the scope of innovative activity going on, conveying information that lists and databases might elide.

“Maps are powerful as visual tools—they can make an impression on people in a way that words alone cannot,” Misiti further commented. “Increasingly, maps are also being used to help large organizations and governments improve management practices and to inform program design—they make it easier to rapidly interpret complex information.”

Whether you’re a philanthropist looking to fund an organization, a college student conducting research, or a local NGO seeking strategic partnerships, you can use the map as a starting point to find like-minded people and ideas. It’s a step towards closing resource and knowledge gaps to help frugal innovation flourish.

And who knows, maybe in the future, this crowdsourced Innovation Ecosystem Map can turn into a crowdfunding Innovation Ecosytem platform.

“It would be exciting if the map became like a Kickstarter or Kiva for South Asian initiatives and organizations, where funders could easily select from a range of projects and donate directly to them,” Misiti mused.

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