TALKS | Health and healthy society

Frugal Innovation in Healthcare

Marieke Maertens & Francesca Ostuzzi Ghent University Belgium
Katrien De Schepper & Lieven De Couvreur, Howest University College Belgium
Maya Hoveskog, Halmstad University Sweden
Nicole Norris, Georgian College Canada

Read the working paper ⇒

A work-in-progress case study, examining how to develop a systemic framework leveraging frugal product innovations for healthcare and Flourishing business model innovations.


The innovation space created by designers within healthcare is meant to empower users (e.g. nurses, therapists and patients). Due to the variety of users and systems involved, this is a complex task. Often products fall short or do not bring the empowerment they promise, eroding “our sense of independence” (McDonagh & Thomas, 2010, p. 182). In this context, we see two innovation pathway extremes. (1) the creation of unique products -often hacks- deriving from a bottom-up and inclusive approach, often connected with open-source licenses, the maker movement (De Couvreur & Goossens, 2011) and aligning to the “bare minimum” needed by the users. These solutions are often the perfect fit for one user-context, but they remain limited in volume and accessibility to many users. (2) The creation of industrial, mass-produced and universal designs. These solutions face the paradox for which the larger the target group the higher the volume to be produced, but also the higher the inner diversity. This puts pressure on industries which results in an erosion of the primary goal of product fit, with an alignment to the average one-size-fits-all, which might not perfectly fit anyone (Nelson & Stolterman, 2012; Braun, 2002). Even though these bottom-up and top-down dynamics cross paths, as for example in the lead users’ innovation (von Hippel, 1986), what still remains is the question: is there a combined pathway that allows for the creation, production and distribution of solutions for healthcare and well being, making them available to many, without losing the goodness of fit?

Here, the concept of sustainability-as-flourishing and frugal innovation combined, as later described, might provide some insights. To build on this, the aim of the study is two-fold; First, from a practice-based design perspective, to understand how to apply the concept of frugal innovation to upscale idiosyncratic hacking solutions coming from local healthcare professionals into marketable products-systems for flourishing. Second, to explore the potential roles of a tool for business modelling towards flourishing (flourishing business canvas) in this process. This has been done with the help of an empirical illustration developed as a collaboration between two higher education institutions in Belgium (Howest and Ghent University).