Frugal Innovations to Accelerate Sustainable Development

By: Angelica Gustilo Ong and Eduardo Gustale, UNDP Accelerator Labs Global Team

With only a decade of action left for the sustainable development agenda, UNDP is looking beyond business as usual, to accelerate learning, to find new mechanisms to learn from the margins, and to look into radically new approaches that fit the complexity of current development challenges.

One of those new approaches is learning from women and men, who have managed to solve problems through ingenuity but with simple, frugal means.

Take Made Kusuma, an environmental health graduate from Bali, who was frustrated by the numerous floods caused by the lack of a waste management system in his community. Drawing inspiration from nature, he found a solution using black soldier flies to process organic waste, which also serves as livestock feed. Or Omar Vazquez, who developed “Sargablocks,” a building block made from seaweed and organic materials, now being used to build homes across the Riviera Maya in Mexico.

Grassroots innovations are often home-grown solutions that have never been codified, applied elsewhere, nor taken to scale. These customized solutions are naturally frugal, grounded in a specific context, and might be more relevant, given their proximity to the problem.

Something relevant for sustainable development is unfolding right in front of us. We are working on a hypothesis that Made Kusuma, Omar Vazquez, and many other grassroots innovators around the world have an important role, and this matters to help national partners achieve the Sustainable Development Goals on time. As we continue to see these grassroots innovations emerge and recognize their value, how can a large international organization like UNDP begin to mainstream what happens in the margins?

The two most common ways of supporting these innovations are through local innovation challenges or by identifying existing user-led innovations. Different studies and experiments compared both approaches and concluded that user-led innovation solutions score significantly higher in overall quality, the value of use, feasibility, degree of elaboration, and social impact. And unlike the solutions that emerged from the innovation challenges, these user-led innovations were more relevant, allow continuous improvement, and usually bring along more novel solutions.

So, we are asking ourselves: Do we know who these grassroots innovators are? How many are they? What grassroots solutions they develop? Often, they remain invisible, innovating in the margins, excluded from the mainstream.

Placing an educated bet on Grassroots Innovations.

UNDP through its Accelerator Labs is conducting an experiment at scale to reimagine development. The network, now expanded through 92 Accelerator Labs across 116 countries, is learning and tapping into the distributed knowledge, perceptions, and practices of women and men facing the effects of climate change, who live in poverty, and who have a lot to contribute to putting the planet on a more sustainable path.

Through the Labs, we are promoting grassroots-led solutions as a tool to move beyond the business-as-usual top-down development programs. We have brought onboard 92 solutions mappers, now embedded inside the organization.

Solutions mapping means finding things that work and expanding on them. It works by seeking out and making use of local assets and identifying positive deviants, i.e., women and men whose uncommon but successful behaviors or strategies enable them to find better solutions to a problem than their peers, despite facing similar challenges and having no extra resources.

“To be a mapper in the UNDP Accelerator Lab network is to be part of a community of brilliant development practitioners who are constantly pushing the edge of development fieldwork. We are trying new approaches, tools, and sharing knowledge and solutions found in our countries.” Basma Saeed, Head of Solutions Mapping, UNDP Accelerator Lab Sudan

This blog is part of a series to reflect on the why: why we approach innovations from the bottom-up.

Grassroots Innovations: sustainable by design?

As grassroots innovations usually emerge in resource constraint environments, these innovations tend to be frugal, using local materials, and designed by and for the community. They can take different forms: from furniture-recycling, reducing the drudgery of manual labor, turning waste plastic into value by mixing it with sand or sawdust, and pedaling around to provide wireless access, to name a few.

We are running an experiment at scale based on the assumption that people living closest to the problems create spontaneous, effective, sustainable solutions. Many of these grassroots innovators are already embedding sustainability as they design their solutions.

Most grassroots innovations seem to be multifunctional, designed to solve multiple problems, not just one. For example, Omar Vazquez’s bricks made out of seaweed is helping solve a climate crisis while also improving the community’s economic stability and access to services. This multifunctionality is a key feature of why grassroots innovations matter to the Sustainable Development Goals — as we cannot achieve these Goals separately or individually.

“If you provide universal education and provide clean water, you still need to achieve gender equality, reduce inequalities, and eliminate poverty. These goals are much more interconnected. You can’t treat them as individual targets.” Gina Lucarelli, Team Leader, UNDP Accelerator Labs

We recognize people living close to the problem have critical knowledge we need to learn from.

“Innovations don’t just happen in shiny labs and Silicon Valley and all that. At UNDP Accelerator Labs, we recognize that innovation occurs all around us, in villages and farming communities, to name a few.” Fatima Farouta, Head of Solutions Mapping, UNDP Ghana Accelerator Lab.

High-level policymakers and experts in the development sector make crucial decisions that affect many lives, but this top-down approach can often miss what is happening on the ground. On the other hand, user-led innovation comes from people who develop solutions to serve their own needs after facing a specific problem. These user-led solutions usually address issues and challenges from a perspective that favors experience-based expertise. What we are seeing is that when innovations come up from experiences on the ground, these local solutions tend to be unique, creative, and open a larger solution space of possibilities. For example, as the authors of this article point out, flood experts who have not experienced the problem Mr. Kusuma is facing may unlikely come up with his solution of using black soldier flies to process organic waste and reduce the chance for flooding in his community.

As a development organization, we want to lean in more on identifying and learning from local innovators about their home-grown solutions, providing them the support they need and the mechanisms to scale their solutions. Visual Credit: Bas Leurs, Lead Learning Designer, UNDP Accelerator Labs

Grassroots Innovations signal unmet development needs.

Professor Anil Gupta, Founder of the Honeybee Network, teaches and lives the maxim that every grassroots innovation is also an indicator of an unmet need. By mapping grassroots initiatives, we can then inform and adapt UNDP programs to ensure we work with partners to respond to newly understood unmet needs of the women and men we serve.

The Piso WIFI is a local solution identified by Rex Lor, Head of Solutions Mapping at UNDP Philippines Accelerator Lab.

Take this innovation mapped by UNDP Philippines via their Accelerator Lab; it’s a WIFI vending machine made from repurposed electronic appliances that give users 5 minutes of Internet access by inserting a Piso coin. While it’s an excellent example of frugal innovation, it is also a signal of an unmet need. This WIFI vending machine emphasizes the need for liquidity and more equitable access to connectivity in the country in small affordable units.

Frugal innovations can seem small, but they can have a huge effect.

Eric Von Hippel, the creator of the term user-led innovation, sees informal innovation as a feature, not a bug. He sees that breakthroughs in human history, such as the Industrial Revolution, were not only associated with one major innovation but linked to a series of small improvements. By systematically identifying and helping diffuse grassroots innovations, the net effect on economic wellbeing can be very large. These innovations can seem small, but as a whole, they can have a huge impact on progress towards development goals.

Fatima Farouta, Head of Solutions Mapping at UNDP Ghana shares “We embarked on our solutions mapping journey together with Ministry of Environment to find out what solutions are out there. We were flummoxed by the number of solutions we found. There were about 50 local innovators in Ghana who were all creating value out of the waste that they saw.”

Watch this space.

We’re embedding solutions mapping into our practice with 92 solution mappers on board in our lab network. We’ve also launched for Tomorrow, a global initiative for grassroots solutions in partnership with Hyundai Motor Company. The for Tomorrow platform is dedicated to celebrate and accelerate grassroots innovation, connect local innovators who are creating solutions for a more sustainable future, and advance these solutions to reach the ambitious goals set out in Agenda 2030.

We’re also working along with partner agencies such as UNICEF and UNHCR to advance how the UN amplifies frugal innovations. If you are working on similar areas, know of grassroots innovations and local innovators in your communities, or have an idea for collaboration, let’s connect.

Our journey has begun, but there is more to be done. In the next part of this series, we will reflect on how the labs are applying solutions mapping, showcase what we are learning, and share the different pathways to value of this exercise. Stay tuned as we continue to share our learnings and (mis)adventures on approaching innovation from the bottom-up.

In the meantime, watch the recap of UNGA75 SDG Action Zone below, as we deep dive into grassroots solutions and the importance of accelerating these innovations globally.

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