frugal innovation

Frugal Innovation

Create More Value with Less

What is frugal innovation?

Frugal Innovation is a means through which organizations can face challenges they are faced with today and create solutions that are affordable, sustainable and renewable. Frugal engineering and frugal innovation are terms that were first coined as a way to provide products that have reliability and consistent performance but at a lower cost than at present so as to be able to arrive at an acceptable price point for the user.

Frugal innovation has become a very timely and topical subject, especially since economic growth in the developed world is stagnating. Emerging markets are often the source of frugal innovations—from necessity as people in these markets are forced to “do more with less” in order to overcome significant amount of local constraints. In recent times, however, resources are becoming increasingly limited in developed economies as well. Consequently, firms in developed economies are faced with similar constraints—to do more with less.

Why should we learn about frugal innovation?

We propose that it is time for the developed world to learn from the developing world where frugal innovation is imbedded in the mind set and cultural practices. We have seen start-ups, small and medium enterprises (SME) as well as multinational companies (MNC) in both developing and developed world are adopting frugal innovation in their business practices.

We strive to have students appreciate frugal innovation through:

  1. Real life examples in both developing and developed world
  2. Innovation processes and ecosystem
  3. Business model and adoption strategy
  4. Experiential learning in a team of about 4 members developing and presenting a frugal innovation business proposal.

This course will enable students to understand the concept of frugal innovation through experiential projects and learn how to innovate for these emerging markets and potentially also how to reverse innovate in Singapore products and solutions.

This is a rare opportunity for students to channel their creative skills and passion for solving problems into a new company that can create jobs in the region! But note that this course is NOT about how to write a business plan or create a presentation to a VC.

If you are a hands-on engineer who likes to build things or a business student who is interested in impacting the world in a big way, this Lab is for you. Over a semester students will be required to identify a clear problem in one of the regional economies and work on a developing and presenting a solution to solving the problem.

More About the Frugal Innovation Module


Teaching Methodology

The teaching methodology is a mixture of understanding frameworks, brainstorming, class discussions, case studies, research, data collection and analysis as well as application of creative logic in a group project setting. It is meant to engage students in a fun, creative, and intellectually stimulating way to understand emerging market challenges and how a student can help drive a possible relevant and appropriate solution in phases.

Faculty will direct theory and practical exercises in the course, and this will be complemented by guest interventions by industry experts to provide insights and experiences. The objective of this semester project is for students to learn how to create a sustainable enterprise starting with an observed need in the market.

Course Deliverables

The deliverables of the course are:

  1. To create using frugal innovation techniques a successful scalable solution that is viable.
  2. The solutions developed should take into consideration the social aspects of the environment they will be implemented. Hence students will be assessed based on the simplicity and cost effectiveness of the developed solution, project work, viability of the developed business approach. Successful students will receive 4MCs for this course registered under MT5912 Frugal Innovation Lab.

Readings & Resources

There is no textbook but the following books are quite useful:

  1. Frugal Innovation: How to do more with less by Navi Radjou, Jaideep Prabhu, The Economist, Paul Polman.
  2. Jugaad Innovation: Think Frugal, Be Flexible, Generate Breakthrough Growth by Navi Radjou, Jaideep Prabhu, Simone Ahuja, Kevin Roberts.
  3. The Frugal Innovator: Creating Change on a Shoestring Budget by C. Leadbeater.
  4. Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economies as If People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher
  5. Other Harvard Business School and other cases: You are required purchase the cases directly from HBS. Information will be provided during the first class.

Requirements & Grading

The course involves both individual and group work. Individual work includes readings, case analysis, participation in the class discussion, and weekly participation in an online self-assessment.
A. Individual Class Participation 20%
B. Online IVLE Assessments 20%
C. Group Frugal Innovation Project 50%
D. Individual Assessment Report 10%


A. Class Participation (20%)

  • This is NOT limited to class attendance. You are expected to analyze the readings and cases, and actively take part in project discussions and presentations.
  • You are graded on both quality and quantity. As a rule of thumb, you will earn 0/10 if you’re absent in a class, 5/10 for being present but saying nothing, and 10/10 for exceptional contribution to class discussion.


B. Online IVLE Assessments (20%)

  • You are expected to take part in a bi-weekly online assessment. The aim of this assessment is to further classroom learning by testing your understanding of the concepts. This will include questions on the cases discussed/to be discussed.
  • This is individual work and we expect you to honor this requirement.
  • The weekly deadline for the assessment is Monday evening 11.59 pm. Note that if you need to miss a class, you will still be expected to take the IVLE assessment, else will be awarded 0 marks. There will be no grace period given to students who have missed the deadline.


C. Group Frugal Innovation Project (50%)

Students will work on a Frugal Innovation project throughout the course. They will start from an existing problem statement that we shall provide and identify solutions which are scalable and can be implemented in a local environment. The deliverables of this group frugal innovation project are twofold:

  1. End semester presentation in week 13
  2. A 15 page (double spaced, font 12, 1” margins) group project report (excluding exhibits, bibliography, and executive summary.


D. Individual Reflection Report (10%)

Students will be asked to write a short individual reflection report on their learnings from the course. The report will consist of a brief answer to a set of questions provided.

Associate Professor Amit Jain
Division of Engineering and Technology Management
Block E2, #05-10

Adjunct Associate Professor Lerwen Liu
Division of Engineering and Technology Management & Institute for Engineering Leadership (joint appointment)

Associate Professor Glenn Vandevoorde
Institute for Engineering Leadership
Block E4, #05-51

Challenge Statements

From the aquaculture industry

“Aquaculture, not the Internet, represents the most promising investment opportunity of the 21st Century.” – Peter Drucker (1909-2005), Father of Modern Management

The need to rely on aquaculture instead of the dwindling sea catch for world’s consumption of sea food is accelerating. The breeding of prawns, finfish, crustaceans and the associated aquaponics of greens have been a growing interest in many countries which depended on traditional sources for food. Aquaculture in open water sources, land based ponds and increasingly now environmentally controlled indoor recirculation systems produce wastes and by-products which need to be handled. The disposal of such wastes for fresh water and seawater aquaculture even after water treatment requires to be dealt with.

The treatment of wastes varies in level of technology as well as the scale of the problem in each farm. A frugal engineering approach to study, evaluate, adapt and adopt simple ways to create good use of aquaculture by-products. In doing so, the associated problems of pollutions, hazards and space constraints would be reduced while tapping on value-adding outcome through frugal engineering in supporting the aquaculture industry at large. Possibly a frugal innovation approach is to study, solve and create start-ups from these three aspects: waste byproducts, water treatment and IoT for monitoring and control of aqua conditions.

Challenge 1
AquaWastes: The amount, types, timings, constituents and characteristics of wastes including algal biomass from different species of aquacultures within a confine vary and need to be thoroughly understood to enable solutions to evolve. Monocultures of a type of fin-fish or prawns would be different from that of polycultures which become complex. What co-cultures and algal species could possibly enhance the total wastes for other beneficial spin-offs? What are the aqua-plants (botanics-aquatics) that can thrive with the wastes instead of the malicious algal blooms?

Challenge 2
AquaTreatment: The types of physical, chemical and biological systems used in conventional wastewater treatment have been applied in aquaculture systems. Treatment need not be just physical removal by mechanical means such as filtration process. There are chemical to biological processes of oxidation of organic wastes, nitrification or denitrification using enzymes, filters and reactors – submerged filters and contactors are currently used. The entire biomass and waste treatments should be based on frugal engineering with energy, management and maintenance sustainability and efficiency. Can aqua-creatures be toilet-trained? What and how the waste by-products could be handled instead of direct discharge into the open and environmentally controlled.

Challenge 3
Aqua-IoT: Many aquafarms are turning to integrated land-based recirculation systems with environmentally controlled covered buildings. More engineering is needed to enhance the productivity and sustainability against the vagaries of the climate change disasters. Higher value and better quality of aquacultures can be bred without use of growth hormones and anti-biotics by relying on monitoring water quality, environmentally controlled operations and management leveraging on wireless network and iCloud technologies. Where current technologies could be incorporated, test bedding and trials could be carried out to verify the efficacies, viability and reliability in such IoT technologies.

From a local vertical farming start-up.

Hydroponic vertical farming. Liteleaf is a local start-up based in Kranji. A Young Grower growing hydroponic leafy greens at 40 Neo Tiew Road. Liteleaf design and build their own Hydroponic System. They have the ability to drive hydroponic innovation for urban farming

Challenge 4
Transplant and Harvesting are very manual and effort intensive. We would like to explore a way to reduce the manual effort. This could include the development of a new growth system.

Challenge 5
To improve and increase the yield, IoT can be used to monitor and react to the plant health, Water/Nutrient, Air and light. But most IoT solutions are addressing consumer or industrial users, hence are not cost effective or optimized for agricultural users. We would like the team to explore way to deploy IoT to agriculture, while still remain cost effective

Challenge 6
Artificial light and climate control. Indoor multi-tier system leafy green farm requires the use of artificial light and climate control. This increases the electricity cost significantly. We would like the team to explore way to reduce these costs where maintaining the quality of the leafy green.

All systems developed have the potential to be deployed not only in an urban setting, but also in remote rural areas.

Challenges of water filtration in rural development areas

WateROAM is a water innovation enterprise founded in Singapore in 2014 to develop water filtration solutions that bring about the quickest access to clean drinking water at disaster-hit locations, and help to promote social change in rural development areas. These water filters are designed to be highly simple, portable, durable, and affordable, thereby improving the access to clean drinking water significantly. WateROAM works with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), companies engaging in corporate social responsibility (CSR) & shared-value activities, and government bodies to reach its vision of building a world where no man shall face prolonged thirst.

Challenge 7
Clean drinking water is essential to human life but rural regions lack access to this resource. In 2014, WateROAM developed a water filtration bag that filters surface water from rivers or wells into clean drinking water by gravity. The technology is much more portable and faster at 5 litres/hr compared to the conventional use of ceramic filters pots (1 litre/hr). However, users still desire for a further improvement in the flow rate to approximately 15-20 litres/hour in order to meet their immediate drinking needs. The company is exploring whether product modifications can help to improve the flow rate, while retaining the quality of water output and product cost.


Please use the following link to register for the course:

REgister for frugal innovation



The Frugal Innovation lab is a module provided under the NUS Division of Engineering and Technology Management, Faculty of Engineering. Led by Institute for Engineering Leadership. Details on the module may also be found here. 

Non-NUS participants may also apply to join in the module. Frugal Innovation Lab encourages collaboration with industry, if you have a suitable problem statement that you would like students to collaborate on then please do contact the IEL staff to explore collaboration options.This module may be adapted for in-house programmes. Contact us at for a chat!