Frugal Innovations to Accelerate Sustainable Development

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

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

Building the world’s largest learning network around development challenges. 91 Labs in 115 countries.