What has frugal innovation got to offer the NHS, social care and wider public sector? This is a question we will be debating at our People Drive Digital #PDDigital16 festival on the evening of 28 November at the Open Data Institute in Leeds.

One of our debaters is Jaideep Prabhu who is professor of Indian Business and Enterprise at the Cambridge Judge Business School within the University of Cambridge. Jaideep has written extensively on the topic of frugal innovation both in emerging markets and in the Western world. You can watch him share his thoughts about what the West can learn from frugal innovation here:


So what is frugal innovation and how is it relevant to people driving digital innovation in health and care? Nesta define frugal innovation as follows:

Frugal innovation responds to limitations in resources, whether financial, material or institutional, and using a range of methods, turns these constraints into an advantage.

You can read a Nesta report on frugal innovation here. The report highlights many examples of frugal innovation and I particularly liked the story of the Kerala neighbourhood network in palliative care. In contrast to a doctor led hierarchical model of care, volunteers from the local community are trained to identify problems of people who chronically ill in their area and to intervene. 70 percent of the Kerala population have access to palliative care in contrast to only 1 percent at a national level. The neighbourhood network consists of more than 4,000 volunteers, with 36 doctors and 60 nurses providing expert support and advice to enable care for 5000 patients at any one time.

Frugal innovation appeals to me because it leverages limited resources available in the public sector whilst avoiding making inequalities worse for people who can’t afford fancy mobile technologies. It doesn’t strictly count as frugal innovation but the work we are doing at mHabitat with Leeds City Council on developing the digital confidence of health and care practitioners seems to fit the philosophy of embedding innovation sustainably within the skills and orientation of our greatest health and care assets – citizens and practitioners. The programme is orientated towards making use of existing technologies in everyday practice and removing the barriers that get in the way.

Making the most of that which we already have is a frugal approach to innovation. The Nuffield report on digital health argues this point well:

There is a lot of interest in some of the leading edge of the technology boom – applications (‘apps’), big data, the ‘internet of things’ … However, our work suggests that there is still huge scope for major improvements in quality and productivity from the use of information systems that are available now and which are required if organisations are going to be able to benefit from the more futuristic ideas coming over the horizon.

The lessons set out in the report emerge from a literature and evidence review alongside interviews with a range of leaders within healthcare organisations. They argue that digital innovation should be routed in new ways of working, culture change and user-centred design. Put simply – patients, citizens and practitioners need to be at the heart of digital innovation in health and care. Whilst the dizzying pace of digital innovation continues apace, we should equally pay attention to what we already have in public sector settings and make the most of that which is readily available, easy to use, and part of everyday life for the majority of people accessing services.

So what are the limitations of frugal innovation in a Western context? By focusing on frugal innovation are we letting governments off the hook who should be better resourcing public services? Do share your counter arguments and challenges in the comments section of this blog, or better still, join us at the debate on 28 November at the Open Data Institute and you can be part of the conversation too.

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