Divided by narrative: sustainability transitions
and frugal innovation

by Samir Amin & Oishika Basak

Perhaps the greatest question of the Anthropocene is how to reconcile against the looming threats of changing climates (Fielding et al., 2023). Regardless of research that indicates unavoidable and devastating futures for societies across the world, collective and radical systems change are limited in their global application (Aklin & Mildenberger, 2020). Instead of our leaders spearheading collective action between multiple actors, across paradigms, and at various levels, we instead fall back to the comfortable, quick, techno-fixes. We look for edits and improvements to our existing systems, finding new innovative ways to reduce our resource reliance. Enter sustainability transitions. Ecological protection meets new economic prosperity, meets revamped social justice. In the last ten years, increasing urgencies in this interdisciplinary field have led to the emergence of many new strategies for the problems of our modern world (Swilling, 2019). The circular economy holds great promise in reducing our resource dependence, renewable energies have the potential to change the way we power our lives, and the remoulding of social practice will lead us to save the polar bears, one bamboo toothbrush at a time. We have become excellent at identifying the misdeeds of the not-so-distant past; extractive industries, fossil fuels, over-consumption, fast fashion, the ultra-rich and their private jets, tax evaders, etc. But is it possible that our solutions to these issues; self-driving Tesla’s, eco-mode washing machines and self-flushing airport toilets, may end up in the same time capsule, dismissed by generations to come as empty gesture?

Photo by Karolina Grabowska | Pexels

To some, the techno-fixes and modernist branding of sustainability echo the same faddism of boomer-era capitalism (Beasy, 2020). They are inherently polished, such that the businessman and trendy teen will both jump on board. Perhaps this is the intention, and a strong argument could be made for the marketing of sustainability being essential for its rapid uptake. Perhaps the big picture approach of sustainability transitions (Kohler et al 2019) is necessary in fostering transdisciplinary and multidimensional thinking, however, this ‘bigger, better, bolder’ framing may also be causing us to miss the nuances of contextual, socio-economic and geographic differences. A counter argument could be made that the (Swilling, 2019). That there are many solutions, and all should be trialled and tested, until we find the right blend of developmental teabag that will limit the rate of our impending doom. But this argument is inherently ambiguous and does little to acknowledge the strategies that we know work. The real question to be asked is; who does this bigger picture narrative of sustainability transitions really serve?

At this point it should be noted that critiques against techno-fixes for sustainability transitions are nothing new and in fact plentiful. People-centric energy transitions, community-first approaches, democratic decision-making, citizen participation, etc, are concepts all brought to the debate, and position themselves as counter to the ‘quick-techno’ fix approach (Swilling, 2019). Many within sustainability transitions are working to understand the narratives of change that are impactful across communities and sectors, exemplified through the lens of geographies of transition (Kohler et al., 2019). More often than not, however, participative sustainability is targeted at scale (Sauermann et al., 2020); how to make everyone understand the importance of sustainable practices, enough so to bring about a frictionless shift to a new economic model. Here, again we must consider narrative. Can this gearing really be considered collective? Or does it strike of a historical hypocrisy of inspiring change in marginalised communities, for the greater good?

If we can make the claim that the bigger picture narrative of sustainability transitions is inherently geared towards wealthier societies, then is there a concept that instead brands sustainability for poorer societies? Yes. Frugal innovation. Frugal innovation is a model based on using less resources and meeting the needs of a lot more people (Prabhu, 2017). One can argue it is based on the principle of frugality, rooted in resourcefulness and simplicity, and doing more with less means. Take, for instance, the Mitti-Cool, a clay fridge that runs on evaporation instead of electricity, from Indian innovator Mansukhbhai Prjapati (Owens, 2013; Panda et al., 2020). Emerging first as a socio-economic concept, with cost-effectiveness at its core, frugal innovation has gained traction in recent years as a promising strategy for socially-minded sustainability (Gandenberger et al., 2020).

Photo by Samir Amin

In contrast to sustainability transitions, the typical framing of frugal innovation is as a concept for mass markets at the “bottom of the pyramid” (Gandenberger et al.). That is to say it is conceived as a concept for poorer societies. In a European Commission report from 2016, the varying terminology for frugal approaches are noted; the engineering approach, the Gandhian simplicity approach, the Grassroots and bottom-up innovation approach, and the South Asian ‘Jugaad’ approach. Even here the implication is made of the concept being separate from the typical audiences of sustainability. This is perhaps because the concept is not an offshoot of sustainability, but rather an exploration of creative approaches to provide better resource value for less affluent consumers, where increased social and ecological sustainability are implicit (EC, 2016). Nevertheless, there are many pieces of work that point to its vitality within  debates on sustainability, as a broader strategy to meet sustainable development goals (Rosca et al.) or as localised implementations for health and sustainability (Levänen et al., 2022).

At this point we could take this inquiry down a politicised rabbit hole. This article, however, does not seek to establish sustainability transitions as the Sherrif of Nottingham nor frugal innovations as Robin Hood. Instead, we simply question why these two concepts have been applied narratives at two ends of an economic scale. Why should sustainability be for the wealthy and frugality for the poor? And beyond this, is technological innovation only visible in wealthier societies while frugal innovation is only visible in poorer societies? There is much research that considers the presence of frugal innovations in wealthier societies (López-Sánchez & Santos-Vijande, 2022; Winkler et al., 2020), such as digital mobility sectors flooded with tech startups touting the car-sharing model (Prabhu, 2017). Similarly, innovations such as the Lion Light by Maasai born Richard Turere, solar powered lights that keep Lions away from livestock and protect their prides in the process (Sambira, 2013) are surely technological examples of inventive sustainability.

We can posit many reasons for the continued distinction of narrative between the two movements. It is perhaps a reflection of branding differences between the markets in which they operate, highlighting how approaches to similar issues may be very different between communities (Prabhu, 2017). However, we have already established that both concepts are visibly present in wealthy and poorer communities. Beyond this, it must also be questioned if the maintenance of a separated narrative between movements limits the breadth of sustainability strategies that can be implemented in each. If the separation of narratives is not a reflection of system, then maybe it is a reflection of appeal and impact, indicative of work that highlights how communities respond to different sustainability stories (e.g. Beasy, 2020; Frank, 2017). The application of this argument here, however, would suggest that the big picture framing of sustainability alludes to a “buy-in” attitude that appeals to the economic signalling of wealthier societies, while the bottom of the pyramid framing of frugal innovations evokes pride in simplicity that speaks to poorer communities. To do this would be to imply a prejudiced and binary generalisation of populations as occupying shared and shallow identities.

Whatever the reason for the different narratives applied to sustainability transitions and frugal innovations, one can argue that their separation hampers inclusivity within societal shifts towards sustainability. In many ways, the two narratives represent two sides of the same coin and while the association of each with a particular socio-economic class is problematic, it is no stretch to assert the essentialism of both within the same debate. Perhaps this will occur naturally, as frugal innovation gains a more specific definition within the context of sustainability. However, it is our opinion that collective action for the environment must make a conceited effort to adopt both the frugal and technological mindset, with the aim to maximise accessibility in the movement. Without such a mergence, we run the risk of alienating those who do not align with the selected narrative, and undermine any action towards large scale systems change.


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