Scale up advanced frugal design principles

To the Editor — A sustainable economy for a growing population must be climate-neutral but also frugal in resource consumption — raw materials, water and physical space. In this context, frugality means applying science and technology to design ‘simplified’ products that minimize the use of resources throughout their entire life cycle. A widespread diffusion of the principle of frugality in the design and redesign of products will help to reduce environmental degradation and safeguard the basic functions of the world’s ecosystems.

The principle of frugality strives to achieve any possible reduction in material consumption through designing or redesigning a product, and considering its entire life cycle — including conception, production, application, recycling and disposal1,2. Different from traditional material-efficient design, which may lead to, for example, low-weight products, a systematic consideration of frugality leads to advanced products that are not only low in weight but possess novel features and superior performance such as reduced energy consumption or an extended lifetime. In principle, every product can be ‘frugalized’3.

Frugal innovations tend to be tailored toward the needs of the less wealthy and involve lower costs of both purchase and operation4,5,6. Examples are zero energy consumption refrigerators, solar cooking stoves, or portable ultrasounds that help to improve healthcare in developing countries3. However, rigorous application of engineering design principles in each of the above examples has also promoted advances in science and technology, leading to advanced frugal innovations, in contrast to makeshift innovations that are also sometimes labelled frugal. Other sophisticated examples include a gravity-induced source of light and a table-top particle accelerator7.

Due to material savings, frugal design leads to a better price–performance ratio and thus to lower prices than those of conventional and less-sustainable products. Such savings for producers and users alike should lead to fast diffusion. Paradoxically, frugal innovations still remain niche for many product families and their markets. The main issue is adjusting existing production lines in order to achieve frugality, often an expensive effort. Most commodities involve complex and often trust-based supplier relations, use specialized infrastructure, and draw on the skills of engineers, technicians and workers who have been trained for conventional product design8,9,10. Adapting infrastructure and value-chains to frugal design incurs substantial though mostly temporary transition costs, such as investment in fixed assets, or transaction and search costs to reshape supplier relations. Acquiring the necessary set of technical skills requires long-term commitment of engineering schools and companies alike.

These transition costs can be alleviated by temporary financial policy support11 that provides the initial impetus for a frugal redesign of products and a reorganization of production (see Fig. 1). Measures should include public procurement of frugal products to demonstrate their feasibility and long-term cost effectiveness, and financial discounts on frugal products to trigger market demand12. Financial policy support is crucial because companies are often not able to bear the transition costs, and innovations originating outside of the corporate sphere, such as grassroots innovations, usually remain confined to the community they originated from13.

Fig. 1: Interplay of costs, policy support and diffusion of frugality.
figure1

Policy support is needed to offset transition costs.

Moreover, it is important to teach engineers, technicians and managers how to produce and sell frugal products. Only few university-level initiatives address the potential of frugal innovations and mostly concentrate on frugal low-cost solutions for the poor (for example, Tata Centre at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, and Extreme at Stanford University). To uncover the full potential of frugality as a design principle, frugality should become part of formal curricula in engineering and business programmes, akin to the increasing inclusion of circular economy in higher education14. Overall, mission-oriented innovation policies and a state-driven leverage effect11 as well as university-level efforts are essential to scale up frugal design principles across sectors.

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Liefner, I., Losacker, S. & Rao, B.C. Scale up advanced frugal design principles. Nat Sustain 3, 772 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-0585-7

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