In defence of frugal innovation in public sector space #pddigital16

This is the full text of a talk given by Mark Brown at People Drive Digital in Leeds on 28th of November 2016 in support of the motion: This house believes frugal innovation has the potential to create better solutions to citizen challenges than traditionally designed digital technologies

I don’t think the logic of frugal innovation works in quite the same way in spaces where the market is dominated by state providers funded through taxation, but the practices remain true.  I’m going to try and set out the case for frugal innovation in public or social sector spaces.

The basic idea of frugal innovation in product, profit terms is finding ways to tap markets of people that have been excluded from previous thinking: poor people or people without economic or other power.

The logic is basically this: find a way of providing something to lots and lots of people who aren’t rich at a price they can afford; instead of providing something top of the range to a much smaller number of people who can afford it at a much higher price.  This might look like an i-phone (sort of) but it’s actual a knock off android mobile from China that does everything a first generation iphone could, better and for about £80 quid.

So: initially early adopters will prove whether a particular goods or service is viable or desirable and then frugal innovators will come into play, finding a way of taking the essentials of the product to as many people as possible in a way that works for them.

So, make something a bit cheap, a bit dirty and no frills and then you open out something to people who may not ever have been able to access it before.  Frugal innovation in the context of people driving digital is about getting down to ground level and really understanding what does and doesn’t make things happen to people.

Areas like health and social services in the UK are, for most people, not something that they are closed out of due to price coming out of their own pockets.  Thank the goddesses that we invented social security and a welfare state to attempt to provide basic standards of care, support, services and lives.

So it’s not that rich people have access to top of the range health or social care innovations that could trickle down to people who are poorer. It’s that rich people have access to top of the range lives, and that those who do the innovating come from similar circumstances. In this context,  frugal innovation is looking at the ways that tech can rebalance inequalities by by striving for the same outcomes while also being aware that not everyone has an effing perfect life.  We still design health systems for people with stable jobs, stable houses and stable lives.

In countries where people have regularly been excluded from accessing social goods by weaker social protections or a smaller state, the process of opening markets and the process of widening access to social goods is the same time.  For example: If everyone can afford a very cheap car out of their own earnings, the state does not have to concentrate funds on travel networks.

While it’s true that traditional public and charity sector space is very adverse to the idea of markets and customers and segmentation in its rhetoric, in practice it still faces the same challenge: how do we get people to access something in enough numbers that it pays off for us?  If any of you in the room tonight are from these sectors you’ll know what your organisation is trying to do and how it will judge its value.  It’ll be getting something to happen to, for or with someone.  The financial exchange might not be as simple as ‘that’ll be £29.99 please, bish bosh, into the cash register’ but the principle is still the same.  You have to get something to happen which will generate a value for an individual, a family, a community, your organisation and the country and world at large.

Where frugal innovation differs from other approaches is that it starts with the smallest units: people and the problems they have. It asks:  How can you find something little and relatively cheap that will pay back the money and resources spent on it by making the world a better place in even a tiny way?

Health and social care as provided in UK public sector spaces is not taught to see little problems.  It’s taught to see big problems.  It’s taught to think of big systemic changes, incremental changes, glacial changes that will unfold over decades.  It’s taught to think ‘go big or go home’.  The market in public sector tech has always been between large institutions.  On one hand there is academia, where new things are thought up and older things evaluated.  Then there are our large public sector actors like the NHS and the multitude of different organisations that make it up, or local authorities, or mega charities.

What has been lacking, and this is where people as citizens have been shut out of this market, is the actual aligning of what is developed with the actual lives people live.  So, unlike people who weren’t considered because they fell beneath the radar of the people who want to be rich speaking to the people who already are rich, your average punter in the UK in public sector spaces is closed out of defining what the market offers because, in the end, they aren’t needed by the industries that make public sector tech happen.  In the NHS, for example, the NHS is the purchaser and the tech maker is the supplier.  As long as the NHS is happy, then so is the supplier.  And, if it doesn’t quite work for people?  Well, we just blame them for being non-compliant, or expect some other body of person  to step in and make that online form comprehensible or to make sure that they read the insulin levels or similar.  The average punter is in the same position of someone who doesn’t have enough money to take part: no one cares.

In an Article for Forbes India, HARICHANDAN ARAKALI wrote about definitely a taxi service/definately not a taxi service depending on what country you live in Uber:

“going truly local, is far more interesting: it’s as much about getting the tech and the business model right as it is about figuring out the psyche of the people here. Uber is here not just for frugal innovation, but to innovate for the frugal.”

By trying to understand where people are at, it’s possible to align what resources are available with what people most want to happen.

As the most recent Autumn statement has shown, there is bugger-all new money for many areas of social good and the ever increasing spectre of a post-brexit recession is suggesting that things are going to hurt a lot more for a lot longer for both institutions and individuals, families and communities.  Everyone will be rushing to get their massive tech plans signed off before the tide of money goes out even further.  If we have the power to align tech in social sector spaces far more closely by working out how we serve the needs of people excluded from the discussions at the top table, then it’s our duty to do so, even if it means thinking smaller and deeper rather than bigger and loftier thoughts of progress.  If public goods are going to become increasingly more difficult to access; from education to health to social care to even democratic structures themselves, we have to start designing and building things that don’t require a perfect bloody life to access.

If the money is going away for a top table level of big things, then our focus must be many and small ones.

If you currently are sitting pretty with all of your reasearch and roll out money in the bank; leaving speaking to people about what they want and need to an afterthought or a bit of window dressing for presentations and award ceremonies you’ll be fine.

It’s the poor buggers who really need something to be different that’ll be in the crap, closed out of influencing their own lives and outcomes by the very people who claim to help them.

A cheap and dirty world can be a horrible world unless good people make cheap and dirty work for people.  If lots of cheap and dirty can make life better and more livable, none of us should ever go to bed with clean hands.


Thank you!

Mark Brown is development director of Social Spider CIC.  He is @markoneinfour on twitter.

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