Charles Leadbeater at PraxisUnico 2013

The frugal future

Last week I attended the PraxisUnico 2013 annual conference of technology transfer professionals in Nottingham.

The first keynote speaker was Charles Leadbeater, who presented his views on the post-consumerist “frugal future”. His core assumption is that the common consumer-society innovation model of creating more/better/faster products has run out of steam, and that this has lead to the economic downturn we’re facing today.

He argues this is not a temporary dip; austerity and low growth in the developed world are here to stay, and this “new normal” is one of three important drivers for future innovation. The other two are the growth of the global middle-class with over a billion people—mostly from India and China—whose aspirations and demands cannot be easily met with current offerings, and the increasing constraints placed on natural resources such as energy, water and minerals.

He identified 4 dimensions of successful innovations in this frugal future: Lean, simple, social and clean.

Lean means the application of the principles of lean manufacturing in very different areas. Examples he mentioned are the Nayarana Health heart hospital in India, and the SABIS education initiative founded in Lebanon.

Simple relates to the user experience rather than the technology. New products and services must be easy to use in the context of the users’ background—this means optimising the entire system rather than just individual components. The example he uses is the way in which container transport has revolutionised world trade; the entire system—from standard container sizes to adapted ships, vehicles and ports—needs to fall into place.

The social dimension pertains to ever more sharing—not just in shared ownership schemes for durables such as cars but also to social transparency: If you know what the average energy consumption in your street is you can see how you compare.

Clean is not limited to environmentally friendly. It also means durable, re-purposing what is already in place rather than replacing a product or system with a completely new one. Upgrade/adapt rather than replace something that offers a partial solution.

What is your take on the Frugal Future?

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