Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.
— Ecclesiastes 9:10
In our world of material wealth, we forget that most of the world fixes everything and discards nothing.
— Stephen Jay Gould
Our van had just been swept from the curb and into Mumbai traffic when I saw him, a disabled man seated on a plywood platform. He was barefoot, wearing loose trousers and a shirt of brown cotton, his withered legs curled to one side. The plywood was mounted on a metal frame and flanked by two large bicycle wheels. Piercing the platform was a rod fused to a pair of foot pedals which he, the driver, rotated by hand. The wagon had no backrest. But the man was in no need of one. Straight-backed and unfazed, he methodically cranked the gear shaft, propelling the vehicle slowly forward such that it seemed to float a little above Mumbai’s harried streets.
My friends and I had strolled those very sidewalks just moments before. Goats free-ranged around stacks of chrome bumpers in the auto-recycling district where men tore apart whole cars with hammers. Women rifled their pocketbooks to buy sheafs of grass for enormous cows that were tethered to lampposts. Food vendors roasted corn cobs on open braziers of burning coals just inches from the sandaled feet of passersby, where walkways gaped with chunks of missing concrete, and the sharp metal corners of storefront displays jabbed at the ankles of the unwary who, like us, dodged merchants hawking sunglasses, wallets and cigarette lighters. How could someone manage to push a stroller, much less navigate a cobbled-together carriage, through this chaos? Had the prophet Elijah himself leapt from the pages of the Old Testament and stormed the choked thoroughfare on a fiery chariot I couldn’t have been more surprised than this: watching a disabled man on a scrap wagon calmly going about his daily business through one of the most tangled cities on earth.
Indians have a word for such startling ingenuity in the face of adversity. It’s called jugaad (pronounced joo-gar), a colloquial Hindi term that roughly means “doing more with less.” According to the authors of Jugaad Innovation, the word derives from the Punjabi practice of jury-rigging carts into trucks. 1 These makeshift vehicles, writes Anand Giridharadas in The New York Times, are “tossed together, saladlike, in the sheds of northern India,” made from reclaimed jeep parts and scrap wood. Powering the trucks are diesel engines that are otherwise used to operate irrigation pumps. To be sure, these vehicles wouldn’t even come close to meeting crash-test standards in the U.S. (It doesn’t help that brakes notoriously malfunction, forcing one of the passengers to jump out of the runaway vehicle and stop its spinning wheels with a wooden block!) But in a place where needs far outstrip means, these seat-of-the-pants contraptions of just-in-time transit have a kind of genius, whether they’re hauling village workers and schoolchildren or piles of rebar and lumber.
Indians may be the world’s champions when it comes to improvising with whatever falls to hand. Even Hindu mythology is replete with examples. The powerful god Shiva lopped off the head of his son Ganesh as he stood guard while his mother, Parvati, was taking a bath. Angered by her husband’s action, Parvati demanded restitution; upon which Shiva simply severed the head of a nearby elephant and installed it on Ganesh’s shoulders. In true jugaad fashion, the power of the much-beloved elephant god is invoked as the remover of obstacles. But Indians certainly haven’t been the only ones to find mother lodes of utility within the seams of scarcity. Synonyms for jugaad, say the authors of Jugaad Innovation, occur throughout the world. 2 What is known in Kenya as jua kali, or entrepreneurial spirit, has enabled people there to envision heaps of worn-out tires as the feedstock for the soles of sandals, a style of all-terrain footgear that was copy-catted here in the U.S. during my own hippie college days. The great evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould so admired the resourcefulness of these sandals that he scoured open-air markets on his international travels and assembled his own collection of folk cobbling. In an editorial for Natural History, Gould described what he considered ground zero for jua kali: the recycling market of Nairobi, where materials are reappropriated “for purposes almost comically different from original intent.” In the make-do jumble, Gould found “a true testimony to human ingenuity. Here sandals are made from tires, bracelets from telephone wire, kerosene lamps from bisected tin cans, containers from scraps of metal, and cooking pots from the tops of oil drums.”
But ultimately jugaad and its etymological kin are referencing more than clever problem-solving. Consider the concept of rasquachismo, the Mexican cousin of jugaad. Among Chicanos, it has traditionally referred to the “worldview of the have-not,” in which a work-around solution to a practical need “suggests vulgarity and bad taste — tackiness,” writes Jose Anguiano. 3 But in recent years musicians and artists have celebrated rasquachismo with pride, even swagger. Rasquachismo is innovation with attitude. As artist Amalia Mesa-Bains writes, “In rasquachismo, one has a stance that is both defiant and inventive. Aesthetic expression comes from discards, fragments, even recycled everyday materials such as tires, broken plates, plastic containers, which are recombined with elaborate and bold display in yard shrines (capillas), domestic decor (altares), and even embellishment of the car. In its broadest sense, it is a combination of resistant and resilient attitudes devised to allow the Chicano to survive and persevere with a sense of dignity. The capacity to hold life together with bits of string, old coffee cans, and broken mirrors in a dazzling gesture of aesthetic bravado is at the heart of rasquachismo.”
And threads of jugaad still run through the fabric of ordinary life in wealthy European countries, although their frugal origins may have been long obscured. In a beautiful essay titled “God Is in the Crumbs,” the French historian Dominque Predali points out that in the middle ages cloistered nuns and monks, motivated by the potent threat of eternal damnation, became masters of reworking leftover food into tasty meals. They regarded food as a gift from God, and so wasting it — especially bread, which Predali observes was imbued with “symbolic values” — was a sin. “According to a German legend,” Predali writes, “the devil collected any crumbs that fell from the table, turned them into burning coals, and threw them at sinner roasting in hell.” So, after each meal, the nuns and monks dutifully swept crumbs from the table into a basket and used them in a hot soup for the Saturday evening meal or a pudding for the poor. “To this day,” he adds, “in monasteries and the lay world alike, stale bread is not wasted and instead is used to make the sweet fried pancake that the French call pain perdu and the Spanish torrijas de Santa Teresa.“ 4
It’s one thing to see jugaad in motion on the streets of Mumbai, for sale in the open-air markets of Nairobi, on display in the roadside shrines of Mexico or as a recycled treat on dining tables across Europe. But how did the ideal of “doing more with less” become the focus of a design exhibition in Manhattan, as it did in 2011 at the Center for Architecture? What has led to its being parsed in periodicals like BusinessWeek and Forbes? The “worldview of the have-not” has “become a touchstone of design thinking and a business buzzword,” observes design critic Phil Patton. “Now, jugaad has also become a verb, heard as often as innovate or kaizen in meetings rooms from McKinsey & Company to Best Buy.” Jugaad has even been translated into English business-speak, alternately referred to in design, business and engineering circles as frugal innovation, frugal engineering, constraint-based innovation, resource-constrained design, design for extreme affordability and, my personal favorite, fatalistic creativity. Giridharadas in The New York Times explains the latter this way: “India is not an easy place, and to be fatalistically creative is to transcend its hardships. It is to chafe daily against the way things run; to resist the idealistic temptation to change all that; and to strive instead for success and solutions within the constraints.”
To be sure, the celebration of this very pragmatism — the cheerleading of improvised, situational solutions — has provoked criticism. As Philip McClellan, Asia editor for the International Herald Tribune, writes: “For some in India, jugaad represents the best of India — the ability of an enterprising people to make do with less. For others, it represents shoddy products and shady practices for which the country has long been known, and a fatalistic acceptance of that reality.” Other critics argue that raising jugaad to a national virtue is a symptom of neoliberal economics and the privatization of public responsibility. To laud the poor for their “adaptive capacity,” writes Oxford professor of geography Craig Jeffrey in The Guardian, is in effect to suggest that if “barefoot entrepreneurs” are able to “‘pull themselves up by their own bootstraps’ there is little need for the state to wade in with things like effective training, cheap credit, and a decent public infrastructure.”
In this view, jugaad thinking encourages the dangerous idea that poverty is caused by little more than an individual lack of imagination rather than by the systemic failure of a corruption-ridden government to assume responsibility for reforming the criminal justice system; providing decent sanitation, clean air and potable water; promoting gender parity and economic fairness (not to mention constructing barrier-free public spaces that are universally accessible regardless of physical ability). This is a serious and valid position. Still, I believe jugaad has the potential — maybe our best shot yet — to articulate and frame a global philosophy for sustainable innovation. Given that many fads fade as soon as they begin to fly, particularly in the restless business world, I want to argue that the tenets and practice of jugaad are likely to serve us well over the long haul, and that they deserve a permanent place in our innovation lexicon.
How might they serve us? To begin to answer that question, you’ll have to fly deep into the Asteroid Belt, some 56 million miles above the Earth, where in April 2012 a new company called Planetary Resources announced long-term plans for mining water and such precious metals as platinum and gold. Or you’ll have to drop two-and-a-half miles to the bottom of the sea beneath the North Pole where, on August 2, 2007, two Russians dodged restless ice floes in a small submarine to plant a titanium cast of the Russian flag on the ocean floor. Their goal was not simply to go where no man has gone before but rather to stake Russia’s claim to what are rumored to be, in the words of scholar Michael Klare, “vast deposits of oil, natural gas, and valuable minerals — resources that will become increasingly accessible as global warming melts the polar ice cap.” 5 Whether it’s lithium, phosphorus, freshwater, platinum, chromium, petroleum or topsoil, “the world is entering an era of pervasive, unprecedented resource scarcity,” writes Klare in The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources. 6 As the easily accessible supplies of the planet’s natural resources are tapped out, we will be forced to dig deeper or go further afield into more remote, risky, politically volatile and environmentally sensitive places. Already, advances in technologies are making possible extraction dreams in places as extreme as the deep sea. China, to note one powerful example, is teaming up with private prospecting companies to map vast stretches of the ocean floor, filing claims to mineral rights in territories the size of Puerto Rico. They’re motivated, writes New York Times reporter William J. Broad, “by dwindling resources on land as well as record prices for gold and other metals” in terrestrial deposits.
But there are alternatives, and here jugaad might play a crucial role. “Instead of rushing to extract whatever remains of the earth’s vital resources,” Klare advises, “major political and corporate powers could engage in a race to adapt: a contest to become among the first to adopt new materials, methods, and devices that will free the world from its dependence on finite resource supplies. Such a race would be motivated by the realization that, sooner or later, all countries will be forced to adjust to a life of extreme resource scarcity — and that whoever can make this transition early will reap significant advantages.” 7
The implications are sobering. For wealthy countries, scarcity will become the new normal. For countries such as India, scarcity will be, well, just plain normal. Which might mean that the future laboratories in the race to adapt, if measured by the greatest gains in quality of life for the greatest number of people, may be located not in places like Silicon Valley or Silicon Fen. They might instead be found in Jaipur, in north India, where Jaipur Foot has been fitting supremely functional and affordable ($45 vs. $12,000 in the U.S.) prostheses for amputees since 1975. Or in the Indian village of Ramakrishna Nagar, where entrepreneur Mansukh Prajapati has invented the Mitticool, a clay refrigerator that is passively cooled by water. “Prajapati doesn’t work for NASA or Whirlpool, and he doesn’t have a Ph.D. in quantum physics or an MBA from Stanford,” write the authors of Jugaad Innovation. “In fact, he didn’t even finish high school. His R&D lab — a simple open-air room with clay in various shapes and forms arrayed on the floor and an oven tucked away in the corner —is a far cry from the sprawling campuses of GE and Whirlpool, which swarm with hundreds of engineers and scientists.” Nonetheless, Mitticool stands to have a beneficial impact all out of proportion to its humble, decidedly low-tech origins. Again, the authors of Jugaad Innovation: “Over five hundred million Indians live without reliable electricity, including most of the people in Prajapati’s village. The positive health and lifestyle benefits of owning a fridge in a desert village where fruit, vegetables, and dairy are available only intermittently would be tremendous.” 8
Mitticool may not come to an appliance store near you any time soon (though, as I write, I long to replace the distracting growl of my Amana fridge with a device that cools food in silence). But other designs, conceived in resource-constrained conditions, are beginning to migrate into world markets. Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble, professors of business at Dartmouth, call this economic transposition “reverse innovation.” In the past, they write, innovations typically arose “in rich countries and later flowed downhill to the developing world. Quite simply, a reverse innovation is any innovation that is adopted first in the developing world. Surprisingly, often, these innovations defy gravity and flow uphill.” 9
Do these constraint-based innovations need to look and function like the equivalent of Punjabi trucks? Far from it. Take, for example, the MAC 400, an electrocardiogram device developed by GE Healthcare researchers in India. In the U.S., ECG machines are expensive (about $10,000), bulky and complicated, requiring a trained technician to operate. In rural India, where doctors often travel from village to village, GE needed to design a product that was cheap, lightweight, portable, easy to operate and battery-powered, since access to electricity is unreliable. To meet the needs of its Indian customers, GE trimmed both the machine’s cost (down to $800) and weight (a mere 2.6 pounds) by employing some ingenious strategies. The ECG printer, for example, was made out of components widely used in the printers that issue tickets in movie theaters and public buses. “Millions of these printers are sold every year,” write Govindarajan and Trimble. “GE Healthcare could buy [them] off the shelf and enjoy additional irresistible economies of scale — versus commissioning a custom solution for only ten thousand units a year.” 10 Eliminating a screen helped to further reduce the weight and conserve the life of the rechargeable battery. And the interface was simplified with foolproof color-coded buttons — the universal red for stop and green for go. As Oswin Varghese, GE biomedical engineer, put it, “If the person knows how to read traffic signs, he should be able to operate a MAC 400.” 11 The MAC 400 was so successful that GE has introduced the technology in more than 90 countries.
In the race-to-adapt era, resource-constrained countries like India may thus have a competitive edge. Not only do they come to the product-development process with nonnegotiable but arguably useful limits; they also have a ready-made societal context or infrastructure in which frugal innovations can endure. Navi Radjou, a Palo Alto-based innovation consultant and one of the authors of Jugaad Innovation, points out that during his childhood in India, “we never threw anything away. Everything got recycled. If a plastic bucket was slightly broken, we’d try to fix it. There was a whole jugaad industry which helped us reuse everything we had.”
On my recent trip to India I witnessed the jugaad industry firsthand, when one of my traveling companions shorted a small fan after an electrical converter failed. In the U.S. he would have simply tossed the defunct appliance and purchased a new one. Even if the fan had been designed for easy repair, he would have been hard-pressed to find anyone with the skills or parts to fix it. But our Indian host took the fan to his father, Raghunath Boradkar, a retired doctor who is legendary among his friends for his transfer of genius in understanding the structure of the human body to dismantling and repairing inanimate objects. Alas, the injuries to the fan were beyond his healing powers, since the problem was not just a blown fuse but also a melted motor. All was not lost, however. Dr. Boradkar took the fan to a repairman down the street. The man had no replacement parts on hand in his workshop, but he assured us that it was only a matter of time before he’d locate a suitable motor in the larger infrastructure of salvaged parts that he and other repairmen keep in endless circulation.
This kind of resourcefulness is evident in electronic as well as mechanical products, and it’s especially useful when applied to the ubiquitous cell phone. From the thoroughfares of Mumbai to the main streets of rural villages, Vodafone storefronts are as common as vegetable stands. “Unlike in the West,” Giridharadas writes in the Times, “where you must contact Vodafone and only Vodafone for connection issues or Nokia and only Nokia for handset woes, on India’s streets, as across the developing world, every third store is a one-stop cell phone shop. They poke into your device with screwdrivers and pens, recharging your credit, answering queries on behalf of a company they do not work for.” As Devita Saraf notes in the Wall Street Journal, “constraint-based innovation” relies less on scientific and technological breakthroughs than on such “ingenuity in product, process and people to solve a customer’s problem by creative improvisation.”
This extensive innovation infrastructure emerges from a more fundamental cultural ethic: people are taught from childhood to improvise by acknowledging — even honoring — scarcity and finding the possibilities within it. Everywhere in my travels in India, I encountered evidence of this mindset. A sign above the trashbin at a highway McDonald’s urged patrons to return unopened packets of condiments to servers. The cleaning crew of a small hotel in rural Maharashtra gathered the barely used soap bars from guest rooms and deposited them in bowls for handwashing in the common bathrooms. The owner of an apartment in Mumbai cut a piece of vinyl from discarded billboard advertising and fashioned a colorful awning for an outdoor balcony. At his workshop in Pune, sixth-generation coppersmith Bhalchandra Kadu collected the wooden shavings from his lathe for later pickup by the residents of a nearby slum, who use the fuel for warming bath water. The broken axle from a military tank, which Kadu picked up in the local recycling bazaar, has been transformed into the perfectly weighted instrument for shaping copper handicrafts. Even Indian cuisine seems vigilant about exploiting scarcity. Architect Anita Dake, one of our host’s friends, surmised, only half-jokingly, that roti, a soft Indian flatbread, was likely invented to reduce waste. It’s used to mop up leftover food bits and sauces from one’s plate, so by the time it hits the sink, the plate requires less water for a final cleaning.
I myself brought home two jugaad-inspired objects that are now among my prized possessions. One is a fruit and vegetable peeler that Dr. Boradkar fashioned from a mussel shell — a replica of the ones he recalls being used in the kitchens of his childhood. Care is taken to select a shell that fits neatly in the hand to ensure a good ergonomic fit. Then the back of the shell is abraded against a grindstone until a razor-sharp hole forms in the center. Dr. Boradkar demonstrated the implement on a potato, shearing away large flakes of skin as neatly as if he were wielding an Oxo gadget. My other prize is a layered coverlet made by Dr. Boradkar’s wife, Nirmala, who created it by stitching together lengths of worn cotton saris. Soft and pliable, perfect for cool fall nights, the light blanket truly earns the name comforter.
By comparison, I can identify only a few examples of jugaad from my life in America. Perhaps the most memorable is the costume that a friend, a cash-strapped single mother, made for her young son on Halloween: she crafted a simple black eye patch and striped T-shirt, tied a bandana to his head, turned a toilet plunger upside down to fashion a peg-leg, and voilà, had pulled together a credible pirate’s costume on a tight budget. But frugal imaginations are an anomaly among my friends. Like many Americans, I sense that we’ve been coddled by store-bought plenty, that we too often draw a blank in the face of scarcity and that we haven’t sufficiently exercised the muscle of thrifty improvisation. How else to explain the popularity of the YouTube phenom Caine Monroy?
In mid-April 2012, an email from a student directed me to an 11-minute film about the work of Caine, a nine-year-old in East Los Angeles. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a tear in my eye as this story unfolded,” my student wrote. Since then, the video has gone viral and received some 3.3 million hits. What caused the sensation? Was Caine Monroy the first kid to row across the Pacific? Did he walk across the country and raise millions for medical research into some dread disease? What Caine did was much humbler — and in some ways more profound. While many boys his age spent their summer vacations at camp or bustled their way through a tight round of music lessons and sports practice, Caine hung out with his dad in the auto-parts store that his grandfather opened in Boyle Heights in 1955. To keep his son occupied while he worked in the back office filling online orders, George Monroy rustled up some empty cardboard boxes, scissors and tape. Before long, Caine had constructed an elaborate game arcade in which players could buy tickets to shoot foam balls through miniature hoops or knock over toy plastic soldiers with balled-up wads of packing tape.
Soon a fledgling filmmaker, Nirvan Mullick, happened on the arcade just as it was being completed and became its first paying customer. Mullick was so taken by Caine’s enthusiasm and ingenuity that he launched a social media campaign to attract a flash-mob to the opening of Caine’s intricate handiwork. Scores of people turned up to play rounds in Caine’s arcade. Mullick made a short film and posted it on YouTube. The video took off like a rocket, inspiring articles in The New Yorker, The New York Times and Forbes as well as jamming the blogging circuit. The video even prompted the creation of a foundation: the Imagination Foundation, formed three days after the online posting, seeks “to find, foster, and fund creativity and entrepreneurship in more kids like Caine.”
Just what was going on? On one level it’s simple; this winsome kid with his jack ‘o lantern smile charmed viewers with the innocence, daring and conviction of his imagination. But there was more to it than that. For years now there’s been widespread concern that too many youngsters in our affluent society are growing up in a kind of climate-controlled, paint-by-numbers childhood-world that is over-scheduled, over-chaperoned and over-frantic, shielded from serendipity and impromptu challenge, where the discomforting murmurs of boredom are quickly muffled with distraction. (Little seems left to chance — especially play. No less an observer than Michael Chabon has pointed out that Legos now come with “incredibly restrictive” instructions that produce “predetermined” outcomes, such as the Star Wars play sets which include blueprints for building facsimiles of the characters, weaponry and starfighters from the film series.) As a result, kids lack opportunities to learn to think on their feet, to exercise resourcefulness, to gain a comfortable fluency with the unstructured space of the imagination. On the website schoolMami, blogger Belen Aranda-Alvarado even wondered: “Is it possible that the parenting guru my generation so desperately needs is a dude who sells used car parts out of a store in East L.A.? Can it be that George Monroy, with his goatee and receding hairline — who gave his 9-year-old some cardboard boxes, a pair of scissors, a really big packing tape dispenser and said to his son “Go!” — is a child-rearing genius?”
Or maybe simply the kind of person who can help train the next generation in the art of jugaad: the capacity to live frugally — yet richly — in the coming age of limits.