A Guardian blog discusses how innovation and improvements that are normally the responsibility of the public sector, have in fact been developed through ‘frugal innovation’ in India. The term refers to innovation in products and services that have been developed through a bottom-up approach to fill a gap in essential products and services through low-cost models. The blog refers to a report that explores the services of 40 social enterprises in India, which help ‘illustrate’ the underlying principles and practices that have led to innovation and drive in the first place.” The blog writer, Stephen Duckworth, suggests that these lessons should be considered in the UK, to promote entrepreneurial drive.

Over the past 60 years, innovation and improvements in India’s public services have frequently emerged in the absence of state intervention or involvement. Social enterprises have stepped in to address the challenges where the government has failed. As a consequence, radical new perspectives have developed that might not have emerged if governments had imposed top-down initiatives adopted from the West.

“Frugal innovation” is the idiom applied to this sweeping revolution in public service design and delivery. The term is used in India and other developing economies to describe innovation that minimises costs by creating frugal solutions to deliver improved or previously non-existent public services. Frugal innovation has given more people access to a wider range of services.

Western governments today seek to manage large public deficits while striving to serve the rising expectations of citizens. There is a buzz emanating from emerging economies that has caught the imagination of Western leaders in their bid to deliver growth in sluggish fiscal environments. In his keynote speech to the 2011 Conservative party conference, David Cameron, the prime minister, called for the same “drive to succeed” that is seen in Delhi, Shanghai or Lagos. Yet the incentives to succeed in the different geographies are divergent, as businessman Harjeet Johal, who has run large retail companies in the UK and India, points out:

“David Cameron wants some Delhi ‘drive’. In his conference speech, he called for Britain to find its inner energy and to start a national fight back, with all the fire of those in the developing world. But having lived and run companies in India, I know that this fight is going to be a knock-out with us on the canvas, as we British lack the reason to be driven”.

Although the social and economic challenges of India are of a different order to the fiscal crises currently faced largely by Western developed countries, India could provide the UK with useful insight into how solutions developed from the bottom up in some of the most challenging public service environments can better meet the needs of citizens. This report investigates a range of new perspectives applied to services by over 40 social enterprises in India. It challenges the notion that uniformity in delivering public services driven by a top-down centralist ideology translates into good value for money. Though many specific models of practice may not be suitable to be adopted by Western public service providers, these examples from India are illustrative of the underlying principles and practices that have led to innovation and drive in the first place.

This report demonstrates how social enterprises have leveraged the freedoms that exist at local community levels to develop new solutions, unconstrained as they are by centralist legacy systems and services. This has stimulated innovation in a way that has ensured equality of access and delivered cost-effective solutions. The social entrepreneur’s journey to transform ideas into insights of how to commercialise innovations and create sustainable businesses is, however, arduous and pushes at the boundaries of dedication and plain hard work.

Social enterprises in the UK have already achieved a great deal, but to unleash the domestic entrepreneurial drive that can deliver otherwise unobtainable outcomes, the government needs to do more to strip away any remaining obstacles and liberate the potential that lies within.

Stephen Duckworth is director of the Serco Institute

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