Innovation must address the big social challenges

Renowned thinker Charles Leadbeater believes we should focus on ‘frugal’ innovators solving real-world problems

The most successful innovations of the future won’t be ones that rely on the latest technology, but ones that are centered around reuse and recycling, and serve a real social purpose.

That's according to Charles Leadbeater, a renowned author, thinker and strategic adviser on innovation, who is in Dublin this week, where he will be speaking on the subject of innovation and small nations.

Leadbeater, who published his latest book, The Frugal Innovator: Creating Change on a Shoestring Budget earlier this year, believes a different approach to innovation is required. It should, he says, address big social challenges rather than simply offering up newer versions of existing products.

With his visit neatly coinciding with a rising chorus of hype ahead of the expected launch of the latest iPhone this week, his views make refreshing reading.


“We’ve come to believe that new technology is innovation but actually that’s not necessarily true. While something like the iPhone was certainly innovative when it first came out and subsequent models have improved on it, innovations come in all shapes and sizes and some of the best ones are the simplest,” he said.

Among the popular examples he cites are Ireland's own Ryanair, which he says transformed air travel in Europe by introducing a low-cost, no frills means of flying, and Ikea, which revolutionised the way we think of furniture.

For his latest book, Leadbeater looks at how the dynamics of innovation have shifted since the global downturn, with more new products being devised for the relatively poor consumers of the developing world.

“Frugal innovation is designed for and is a response to its times: to make the most of the limited resources we have in order to create better, more successful and sustainable ways to live,” he writes.

He cites four features that all frugal innovations share: they are lean, simple, social and clean. Moreover, he suggests that frugal innovators aren’t to be found hanging about in dorms at Harvard or in the big, bright research centres of multinational firms based in California, preferring instead to operate under the radar and often in extreme conditions.

The book showcases a long list of frugal innovators who are at work developing products that really make a difference. Among the innovators featured are Gyanesh Pandey, an Indian engineer who developed the Husk Power System, which uses rice husks to generate electricity, and British inventor Charlie Paton, who has developed a project to create a renewable energy-based, sustainable farming oasis in the Sahara desert using concentrated solar power and a low-cost, sustainable method of water desalination.

What frugal innovators have in common, according to Leadbeater, is that they eschew cutting-edge technology and prefer instead “to do radical things with proven, often quite old-fashioned technologies, which are known to work, familiar to customers and easy to maintain”.

“Innovation can often start in marginal and unexpected places . . . and most of the innovations that will succeed in the years to come will be those that are good at making technology which is human and friendly,” he says.

Leadbeater has led a colourful life that includes working as a journalist and editor at the Financial Times and the London Independent, where he devised Bridget Jones's Diary with Helen Fielding. As well as advising countless companies, cities and governments, he also previously served as a policy advisor to the former British prime minister Tony Blair.

He previously charted the rise of the activist amateur in the book The Pro-Am Revolution and explored the new phenomenon of mass participation and collaboration as characterised by websites such as YouTube and Wikipedia in We-Think.

On Wednesday, he will be in Dublin as one of the key speakers at the Innovation Strategies for Ireland breakfast seminar to be hosted by KPMG and The Irish Times.

Given that a recent study from the European Commission ranked Ireland as an "innovation follower" rather than a leader based on a number of measures including entrepreneurship, intellectual assets, and R&D, one can't help but wonder what Leadbeater makes of the country's ambition to be a centre of innovation.

He admits to being unsure of the benefit of ranking countries using the methodology adopted by the EU, as he believes it only captures part of the overall picture.

“You can’t ignore the role that foreign direct investment (FDI) plays in Ireland; it has arguably raised the country’s innovation capacity,” he says.

“Small countries tend to be drawn towards market-focused innovation rather than R&D innovation and this is true in many respects for Ireland. If you look at the country’s dairy industry, for example, innovation in this sector isn’t necessarily going to be covered by the EU’s scorecard but it is innovation nonetheless.

“One of the things that stand out about frugal innovators is that they don’t usually work in R&D labs and in universities, but are out there solving real-world problems. This is something that Ireland needs to bear in mind if it wants to foster a culture in which frugal innovators will come to the fore,” he said.

Charles Leadbeater will be speaking at Imagination – Innovation Strategies For Ireland, the first in a series of free breakfast seminars co-hosted by KPMG and The Irish Times at the Market Hotel at 8am in Dublin 2.

Register for the event at

Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor is a former Irish Times business journalist