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The sourest lemons make the best lemonade?

| Wednesday, February 28, 2018

“Necessity is the mother of invention.” We’ve all heard this quoted and for good reason. Often the best inventions are born out of adversity and need rather than being the fruits of massive research and development budgets. Problem-solving in dire situations encourages open-mindedness and productive out-of-the-box thinking. Meaningful innovation solves a problem; superficial innovation engineers a problem to solve. This premise extends to all areas of life, from science and technology to commerce and public policy making.

Many languages and cultures have unique terms for simple and elegant problem solving using limited resources. Americans are familiar with the terms “jerry-rigged” or “MacGyvering,” an homage to a 1980s ABC show “MacGyver,” referring to solving problems with liberal amounts of duct tape and ingenuity. In India, “jugaad” originally referred to ultra–low cost vehicles ingeniously put together by farmworkers using wood and old motorcycle engines. Jugaad has since come to refer to the type of “hacking” prevalent in the developing world to solve problems with imperfect and limited resources. Interestingly, jugaad, a term developed by Indian farmworkers, has since made it into the business lexicon dictionary of the highbrow Financial Times.

These terms all capture the beauty of innovating under adverse circumstances. Counterintuitively, humans are more creative when they are provided a definite scope and a fixed set of resources to work with. Too much choice often leads to unnecessary confusion and a flawed decision making process. Marketers call this phenomenon consumer paralysis. A 2000 psychological study by Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper found that consumers are 10 times more likely to purchase a bottle of jam if the grocery store display only had six varieties instead of 24 varieties. It should be no surprise that some of history’s most prolific innovators — Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Michael Kors, Giorgio Armani and Mark Zuckerberg — are famous for wearing the same wardrobe every day. By removing unnecessary choices, they were able to better harness their creativity. Innovating under a time crunch, such as a literal ticking bomb in MacGyver’s case, prevents one from over-analyzing a problem and forces one to work with the limited resources on hand. Similarly, innovators in impoverished regions of the world who create with limited resources often develop better solutions for their problems than a large corporation could ever develop.

Innovators in the developing world operate with a different set of resources and incentives than their counterparts in plush research and development jobs, allowing them to create solutions appropriate for their environments. Doctors in India developed the Jaipur Foot, a specially designed, low-cost prosthetic limb made with only $40 worth of materials. In a country where roughly 750 million people makes less than $3.10 a day, American prosthetics costing thousands of dollars are prohibitively expensive. Aside from being expensive, prosthetic limbs designed in the West aren’t optimized for the needs of India’s handicapped who regularly walk on uneven streets, sit cross-legged and often work in muddy rice paddies and fields. Due to its low cost and unique design, over 1.2 million people in India and 26 other developing nations are using the Jaipur Foot allowing them a previously unimaginable level of mobility and self-sufficiency. Surprisingly, these frugal innovations from the developing world often technologically leap-frog the developed world’s existing products. M-Pesa, domestically developed in previously cash-centric Kenya in 2007, is now the “world’s leading mobile-money” system, according to the Economist Magazine. M-Pesa facilitated “online banking” using Kenya’s already well developed mobile phone network instead of relying on the country’s limited banks. This allowed millions of Kenyans to transition from strictly using cash to using more secure mobile wallets. Due to the prevalence of M-Pesa, crime rates have fallen while Kenyans are experiencing meaningful income gains. Rural Kenyan families which began using M-Pesa saw their incomes increase between 5 and 30 percent. M-Pesa has since spread throughout the developing world leveraging the ubiquity of mobile phones and the need for mobile banking.

The previous two examples, as well as countless more jugaad innovations, are promising glimpses into how the developing world can sustainably develop. Countries in the developing world, not the west, are better suited to create products and technologies for the rest of the developing world. Developing nations share similar constraints such as poor infrastructure, low literacy and education rates, political corruption and limited electricity. Importantly, not all jugaad innovations are inferior substitutes for existing products; many of these innovations are, objectively speaking, technologically superior to existing products or new inventions altogether. Additionally, since fuel and electricity are often scarce where these products are developed, many of these innovations use green technology such as solar panels; eco-friendly technology out of circumstance, not choice.

In order to solve the problems of our day such as climate change and poverty, the world must embrace out-of-the-box thinking. What once worked may no longer be the most appropriate or efficient solution. What works in one country may not necessarily work well somewhere else. Innovation can take place anywhere, and often the best innovators work with the fewest resources.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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