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Jerry Kathman, from the Design Management Institute Conference in Madrid: It’s Time for Frugal Innovation

Last week I attended the Annual Design Management Institute (DMI) European Conference in Madrid. I serve as the Chairman of the Board of the Design Management Institute, and it was the first conference since we appointed our new president, Michael Westcott. I am delighted to report that the conference was a great success.

The conference was titled “Designing the Next Economy.” Madrid could not have been a more relevant backdrop. Spain is clearly struggling as it searches for its role in the new economy. The European Union has imposed austerity measures on the Spanish government. The unemployment rate is 27%. The unemployment rate for those under 30 is an astounding 57%. There were organized protests outside my hotel, which was located near government buildings.

The conference emphasized the design industry’s need to rethink convention, disrupt the status quo, make new connections and do more with less. Speakers focused on how design is changing the game for start-ups, global businesses, healthcare, education and the public sector.

In this new economy, designers all need to get comfortable with the idea of working within constraints and working through barriers of time, space and money. For this reason, utilizing design thinking to find new solutions to people’s problems has never been more important.

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One of the interesting conference themes centered around the idea of frugality. Every new initiative today requires careful consideration of the time allocated and the money spent. We must continue to uncover and reveal the unexpected and the compelling if we want to create products and services that delight and inspire people. That’s not new, but we are witnessing seismic shifts in how the developed world perceives value. People are abandoning ostentatious luxury in favor of a different concept of quality involving balance and simplicity.

In the developing world, the issues are different. Consumers are facing the consequences of population density, rural to urban migration, inadequate sanitation and scarcity. Here, too, design thinking plays a role.

Dr. Simone Ahuja, founder of a Minneapolis-based consultancy, Blood Orange, and the author of Jugaad Innovation, shared stories of today’s frugal innovators in India. “Jugaad” is a Punjabi word that means “an improvised arrangement used because of a lack of resources.” Jugaad Innovation extols the virtues of everyday problem solving with cost-effective solutions, in spite of barriers and constraints. Ahuja made a great case for the “jugaad” approach’s effectiveness at bringing new ideas to the market faster, cheaper and better. The lessons apply broadly.

What does all of this change mean for designers with their eyes on the next economy? I believe it means, as Westcott stated at the conference, “an end to business as usual.” To be unusual, we’re going to need to think and act with the ”jugaad” outlook—frugally and with great flexibility.

If you are not currently a member of the Design Management Institute, I encourage you to join. Visit DMI.org and begin to participate in one of the world’s critical conversations.

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