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Essay: Parmesh Shahani – Jugaad Innovation, Resourceful Lives



Jugaad is a Hindi word that can mean different things from a low cost fix that is imperfect but just good enough, to something innovative that comes from being creative or by using fewer resources.  It has no equivalent word in other languages, although there are some such as DIY (Do it Yourself) in the US, gambiarra (improvisation) in Brazil and zizhu chuangxin (indigineous innovation) in China, which come close.

Jugaad is one of those words that have taken off in the past two years in the global lexicon. My foreign friends have used it increasingly to describe India’s innovation quotient in the past few months and it used to irritate me until recently. My rationale was – why should we think that an attitude of frugality or the ability to do things out of poverty or under desperate constraints as jugaad suggests, as something to be celebrated as a part of India’s DNA? Why shouldn’t we create conditions of non-scarcity or non-desperation instead, in our country or in our lives? Why shouldn’t we remove the need for jugaad so that we can innovate on a level playing field with the rest of the world?

However, I changed my perspective on the subject after hosting the three authors of the book Jugaad Innovation at the Godrej India Culture Lab. As they told me, rather than dismissing jugaad as a poverty based phenomenon, or being embarrassed of it, I should see how jugaad principles might be formalized and used to spur innovation. I then began to frame the book as a compliment to Banerjee and Duflo’s Poor Economics which tries to understand poverty and adversity, or Sheena Iyengar’s The Art of Choosing, which tries to understand why some people make certain choices while others don’t.

The book Jugaad Innovation (and indeed India itself) is full of case studies of people and organizations that sought opportunity in adversity, or did more with less, or chose flexibility over rigidity, with powerful results. These include individuals like the potter Mansukhbhai Prajapati, the inventor of MittiCool, a 30-Euro clay (called mitti in Hindi) refrigerator that uses no electricity and is 100% biodegradable. After he began to get international acclaim and his order book started filling up, he started training the other villagers in pottery and devising processes by means of which he could mass produce his clay products in a factory in his village Today, besides MittiCool his village also makes other products with clay like non stick frying pans that retain heat longer but cost only 1.5 Euros each.

In another case from the book, a person called Kanak Das from Morigaon village in India’s Assam state invented a bike that actually runs faster on India’s bumpy, crater filled roads! A shock absorber fitted on the bike’s front wheel compresses and releases energy into its back wheel as a propulsive force. Das’ innovation has been patented with the support of India’s National Innovation Foundation, and may soon find its way into automobiles, courtesy a bunch of engineering students at MIT.

Jugaad is something that companies from emerging markets like India have been successful at recently. In response, Western companies have begun doing their own kind of jugaad, both in their home countries as well as in their operations in emerging markets So GE has created the MAC 400 in India in 2008, a portable ECG machine that costs one tenth of its Western equivalent.

Jugaad is now also being taught in universities. Santa Clara University has a Frugal Innovation Lab. Stanford University has an Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability program. Cambridge has an Inclusive Design program. In fact many world governments like that of the UK, US and the Netherlands as well, are embracing jugaad, with a slew of efforts, either online, or through physical contests or challenges, that urge citizens to collaborate and solve real-world issues.

In this context, I’m fascinated by Startup Chile. This is an accelerator program of the Chilean Government to attract world-class early stage entrepreneurs to bootstrap their startups in Chile and use it as a platform to go global. During the six months program, the participants must live and work Chile and for this, they receive US$40 thousand of equity-free seed capital, a 1-year work visa, and access to local financial and social networks. Start-Up Chile has gained impressive international recognition. The hidden agenda though is more powerful. Can a constant supply of imported ideas capital eventually make local Chileans more entrepreneurial from within? It will be worthwhile to watch this jugaad experiment over the years.

In my chat with the book’s authors, they also urged me to think of jugaad as open source. They mentioned Ladyada Fried, the pioneer of the Open Source Hardware movement (that enables engineers to put up the source code of their products up on the web for free, for others to download and build their own products) and Khan Academy, which has puts up thousands of videos explaining math and science concepts on the web for free.

I hadn’t thought of it until Jaideep, one of the authors pointed out to me after having read my book Gay Bombay, that jugaad is also something that we do in our own personal lives. In my book, I quote Sunil Khilnani from The Idea of India, where he writes: “What is ‘distinctively Indian’ is ‘a capacity…an ability to improvise, a kind of cunningness at historical survival, a knack for being able to respond to any question that may be asked. In the musical forms of India, as in its literary traditions, it is not fixity—the dogma of the singular text—that is valued, but rather the skill of improvisation and variation’.” Isn’t this also jugaad, Jaideep asked me?

I agreed with him. In my book, I write how gay people in India constantly negotiate their lives, hopes and dreams; balancing expectations from families and society along with their own desires and aspirations. Their innovativeness comes in choosing one over the other, but in the accommodation of all, in strange and myriad ways, sometimes positive, and sometimes negative. In the 4 years since the book has been published, several changes have taken place in our country with regard to the social and legal environment around homosexuality. The main thing is that it is no longer illegal to be gay in India, courtesy the Delhi High court judgment of 2009. Thus many gay and lesbian community events, which used to be underground, are now coming into the mainstream spotlight, like Kashish, the country’s first LBGT (Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgender) film festival.

I will talk more about this particular personal jugaad during my time in Utrecht as an Impakt Fellow. For now, I will end by telling you how I felt while watching the many different films, back to back, at this year’s Kashish festival.

The films were from Europe, South America and India, feature films documentaries and even gay cartoons. After seeing them all, I began to think that despite our differences, among the many things that unites queer people all over the world is the desire to be happy and the jugaad that we do to achieve this happiness. The same kinds of negotiations. The same kind of working on the margin, or in making constraints work for instead of against, that the authors of Jugaad Innovation discussed with me. Maybe at some level, we are all like this only? Western or non-western, gay or straight; jugaad innovators at heart?

Parmesh Shahani heads the Godrej India Culture Lab – a space that aims to interrogate the textured nature of Indian modernity by cross-pollinating the best minds working on India from across the academic, creative and corporate worlds. In addition, he is also a TED Fellow and MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.