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Frugality as an answer to the main challenges faced by cities

A frugal economy theorist, Navi Radjou is an innovation and leadership advisor to companies, institutions and local authorities. With Indian, French and American roots, he travels the world to make international leaders aware of the need to change our economic model.

You have developed the concept of frugal innovation. What does it mean?

N.R. Directly inspired by the Hindi term “jugaad”, which I translate as “resourcefulness”, it consists in developing solutions, products and services that add value through smart use of existing resources – raw materials, knowledge, infrastructure.

It is not just about making do with less, the ambition is to do better, to improve everyone’s material and emotional living conditions. To be part of a contributory, even regenerative approach.

You believe that frugal innovation also represents a solution to social, economic and ecological challenges. Can you give some examples?

N.R. The Recygo programme led by La Poste and Suez is a good example. The idea is that postmen collect paper waste from very small to medium-sized companies, which is then recycled by people in need. Rooted in a region, this model is a source of income for La Poste and provides more recycling and inclusion.

While the circular economy focuses on ecology, the frugal approach also seeks to respond to social issues, notably through the human dimension. For example, cities that develop mixed use facilities by installing nurseries in retirement homes: they make optimal use of what already exists, with a real emotional benefit for everyone.


“The frugal approach is very powerful in the face of scarce resources and the need to make a positive contribution to our challenges.”

Navi Radjou
Innovation and leadership advisor

What exactly does the frugal city consist of?

N.R. It is a city that makes the most of all the resources at its disposal to provide a better quality of life for all. It is a profound change, as expressed for example by Pierre-André de Chalendar, Chairman of Saint-Gobain, in his book The Urban Challenge. Unlike China, we can no longer build more and more new cities in Europe, we no longer have the choice and must make do as best as we can with what already exists, by reusing, renovating, reinventing ways of moving around, transforming uses to restore value to the resources we have.

In my view, these strong constraints stimulate creativity, which is a key component of the frugal approach. In addition, the city can no longer be considered solely as a place of consumption. The challenge is to reintroduce areas for production of food, energy, etc. This changes the relationship to the products, because we can see what resources they use. This is why restoring proximity is essential… and above all possible: take the micro-factories installed in shipping containers, that are capable of producing vaccines.

How can we achieve this?

N.R. By broadening our way of thinking. Just look at the Kenyan villages that have gone straight from candles to solar panels thanks to a viable economic model for users, who pay a daily fee according to the amount of energy used.

The big city does not have a monopoly on innovation, it can also learn from good practices that exists on the margins. Moreover, cities must urgently mobilise collective intelligence and devise tailor-made solutions to suit their own context. What is essential is to experiment and share good practices so that they can spread!

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