In This Issue
Spring Bridge on Postpandemic Engineering
March 14, 2021 Volume 51 Issue 1

A Case for Frugal Engineering and Related Manufacturing for Social Equity

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Author: Ajay P. Malshe, Dereje Agonafer, Salil Bapat, and Jian Cao

Urgent and continued work in frugal engineering and manufacturing is essential for addressing technosocioeconomic inequity in the United States.

Traditionally, problems arising from lack of access to basic human needs such as food insecurity, affordable health care are thought of as global problems only pertinent to developing and underdeveloped countries. However, these problems silently exist and are growing in developed countries such as the United States. These problems are driven by the equity gaps put to the forefront and further magnified by the covid-19 pandemic. This paper is presented in two parts. The first part unfolds the clear equity gaps in access to basic human needs in America. In the second part, we propose and illustrate the potential of frugal engineering and manufacturing approaches to address these equity gaps. Further, the paper also highlights the importance of convergence among science, engineering, education, policy, economics, community engagement, and businesses for understanding and developing affordable and accessible solutions for the complex problem of inequity in urban and rural deserts in the United States. Through the review of successful and representative frugal social innovations around the world, we identify key attributes of frugal engineering and manufacturing approach to guide social innovation for equity.

A recent study shows that since 1975 over $47 trillion in wealth in the United States has been transferred from the poor and middle classes to the top 1 percent (Hanauer and Rolf 2020). Especially, during 10 months of the pandemic, “America’s billionaires have grown $1.1 trillion richer when 8 million Americans fell into the poverty of the final six months of 2020. The poverty rate climbed 2.4% in the second half, nearly double the largest annual increase in poverty since 1960, when some groups have suffered more than others” (Egan 2021). Concurrently, since 1975 the population in urban and rural areas has increased significantly in America and other industrialized nations. Historically disadvantaged groups in these regions are disproportionately affected by equity gaps, lacking in basic needs such as access to nutritious food, clean water, internet connectivity for education, and basic health care (box 1). Technological advances remain unaffordable and inaccessible to many, given average US earnings of $34,000/capita in 2019.[1] Inaccessibility to basic needs has been further exposed and exacerbated by the covid-19 pandemic (Malshe and Bapat 2020). The US technosocioeconomic divide obstructs upward social mobility necessary for eradicating, for example, generational poverty (Malshe and Bapat 2020; Peterson and Mann 2020).

Malshe box1.gif

Traditionally, the question of inequity is largely addressed by social scientists, lawyers, and economists and seldom by those in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, despite the potential for technological innovations to address this problem. Beyond the need for more uniform digital connectivity (Tsatsou 2011), the broader role of scientific and technological innovations in addressing the problem of inequity in basic human needs has not been sufficiently explored, especially via working with communities in need.

As evident, the complex problem of inequity is at the intersection of multiple disciplines and could be understood effectively as a convergent problem. According to the recent report of the Academies convergence of the life sciences with fields including physical, chemical, mathematical, computational, engineering, and social sciences is a key strategy to tackle complex challenges and achieve new and innovative solutions (NRC 2014). What is needed is a convergent approach that leverages the work of all stakeholders connected to this inequity gap including, for example, STEM scientists and engineers, social scientists, and policymakers.

At the same time, there are examples of effectively implemented social innovations across the world addressing basic human needs, and they can enhance social equity through conscious and convergent efforts by scientists, engineers, social scientists, and policy researchers. “Social innovations (SIs) are defined as new solutions (products, services, models, markets, processes, etc.) that simultaneously meet a social need (more effectively than existing solutions) and lead to new or improved capabilities and relationships and better use of assets and resources” (Caulier-Grice et al. 2012, p. 42 ).

Frugal engineering is characterized by at least an order of magnitude reduction in the use of resources—time, capital, space—for invention, innovation, and implementation to address a specific problem. For example, a prestigious Rolex Award–winning innovation, the Zeer pot-in-a-pot, provides refrigeration without electricity in the very hot climate of Nigeria ( 2000). Without proper refrigeration, fresh produce spoils quickly and hampers the earning ability of farmers. The innovator, Mohammed Bah Abba, a potter by profession, realized evaporative cooling through porous clay pots for refrigeration. The solution benefited the local community by helping farmers extend the shelf life of their produce, using local know-how (pottery) to create jobs, and providing fresh produce for consumers. The following sections present the equity gaps present in the United States, a review of successful social innovations around the world followed by the proposed frugal engineering and manufacturing model that could be applied for social equity.

Traditional Viewpoint: Looking Outward in the World for Gaps

For decades, the United States STEM community has been engaged in addressing inequity across the globe, as challenges rooted in inequity are unfortunately common-place throughout the world. Although fundamental STEM knowledge and technology are available to address challenges rooted in inequity, numerous barriers prevent this know-how from benefiting those in need.

To identify hidden gaps that impede development, the Purdue Innovation Science Laboratory conducted a comprehensive success factor analysis (Sinfield et al. 2020), comprising a systematic literature review and automated data mining of sources (peer-reviewed articles, grey literature, case studies, and social media content). Analysis of over a dozen complex challenges around the world—from potable water availability in the Dominican Republic to food security in Uganda and small business opportunities in Southeast Asia—revealed common barriers that drive inequity.

The analysis showed that populations around the globe are consistently marginalized by barriers associated with skill, wealth, physical/social access, time, behavior, attitude, and/or belief; in many cases, several of these barriers are present simultaneously (Sinfield et al. 2020). Additional large-scale literature and perspective mining, focused within the United States, performed to examine, for example, means to address poverty in urban settings, and drive adoption of new energy solutions, reinforced the very same patterns. Thus, the barriers that isolate and disenfranchise populations are not unique—and are present in the United States as much as outside the nation. Overcoming these systemic -barriers that break the cause-effect chain of social equity will be a critical focus of any effort to achieve equal access to the resources that address fundamental needs.

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Looking Inward: Gaps in Affordability and Access to Meet Basic Human Needs in the United States

Table 1 lists illustrative facts to highlight the inequities and challenges across urban and rural desert communities in the United States with representative examples from Atlanta, Chicago, rural Indiana, and Navajo Nation. Such information is critical for identifying ways to achieve equity through accessible and affordable -frugal innovations discussed later in this article.

Health Inequity in Urban Atlanta

There is considerable evidence across different US population groups (see table 1A) of health disparities, many stemming from factors related to social, economic, and physical conditions prevalent in these groups (NASEM 2017; ODPHP 2020).

A characteristic attribute of affected population groups is that they are technosocioeconomically -constrained and lack access to affordable and -quality health care. Consequently, these communities can benefit significantly from frugal scientific and technological innovations. For example, noninvasive wearable internet of things (IoT)–enabled wireless sensors manufactured at scale and at low cost can help bridge healthcare access gaps in these communities. Recent advances in printed flexible electronics and nano-manufacturing are making such low-cost innovations possible (Kwon et al. 2020).

Water Inequity in Urban Chicago

Chicago, commonly considered a fortunate city, a city by the American Great Lakes accounting for 21 percent of the Earth’s surface freshwater,[2] shows sig-nificant -equity gaps as evidenced by the data presented in table 1(B). In Chicago, undersized infrastructure creates flooding vulnerability in many low-income communities on the South Side, like Ford Heights.

In July 2019 Northwestern University, Argonne National Laboratory, the University of Chicago, and the Illinois Center for Urban Resilience and Environmental Sustainability hosted a workshop on Sustainable Urban Systems with an emphasis on the Chicago region with support from the National Science Foundation. A major challenge identified at the workshop is to enable community groups to benefit directly from research projects (Miller and Dunn 2019), a challenge that we believe can be met through social innovation and frugal engineering and manufacturing, and by working with the community in need.

Food Inequity in Rural Indiana

Food insecurity is a complex issue, intricately tied to multiple, interdependent factors, including socio-economic status and race. Its impacts may be particularly significant for children. And as the covid-19 pandemic has revealed, public health crises and accompanying jolts to the ecosystem (e.g., sudden unemployment) can augment food insecurity even more as depicted by the data presented in table 1(C). When schools closed because of the pandemic, a primary source of food-insecure children’s healthy meals was also closed, compounding the existing challenge.

Those who are food insecure in rural Indiana often live in a food desert—meaning they lack access to healthful and affordable food because they don’t have adequate transportation or enough money (or both)—and/or are in lower socioeconomic strata. Adding to these complications, the food insecure in food deserts rely on volunteers who are aging to bring them food (Carriere and Ayres 2013). Now is the time to design and conduct sound, convergent research on the complex, interconnected relationships among techno-socio-economic, cultural, geographic (urban/rural), public health, and other variables related to food insecurity. As Hindi (2019) argues, food insecurity needs to be thought of as a systemic problem. Communities, health policy experts, and scientists/engineers must work together to advance technological and data-driven recommendations designed to address this pressing social issue.

Inequity in Connectivity for Education on Tribal Lands

The covid-19 pandemic has posed a serious threat to educational outcomes for Native American students, who already struggled with inequality in internet connectivity (table 1D). This is particularly problematic as the country gears up for the 5G network, while many parts of the United States have little or no internet connectivity for basic education.

Distance learning requires internet availability for students to stream online classes or download suggested material. The lack of internet to stream online classes or download suggested material leaves Native American students at a major deficit, exacerbating preexisting disparities in educational attainment. This also means that students lack hands-on learning accompanied by real-time student-teacher interaction, a crucial component to effective learning. Activities to augment distance learning such as virtual visits to zoos, museums, aquariums, NASA education resources, and other STEM centers are also not accessible to students.

The frugal innovation approach, as presented in the next section, is thus critical to ensure that the technological advances remain affordable and accessible to the communities in need. Instead of modifying the existing technology for higher performance, converging the available expertise and infrastructure to ensure its accessibility to deserts such as Navajo Nation will be a crucial social innovation step.

Social Innovations, Frugal Engineering, and Manufacturing

In contrast to the tech innovations average citizens cannot access and/or afford (Malshe and Bapat 2020), SIs can address basic human needs using frugal technologies and provide affordable access and equity to underprivileged people. Frugal engineering and manufacturing methods and innovations enable simplicity, affordability, effectiveness, accessibility, sustainability, and scalability of timely societal interventions to address challenges such as those described above. We review seven representative SIs (summarized in table 2) from across the world to understand key attributes of frugal engineering and manufacturing relevant for their successful implementation and analyze the potential of an SI frugal engineering and manufacturing model to address inequities in the United States.

Malshe table2.gif

A key to envisioning effective technological SIs is to first understand the particular problem and its complexities relevant to a specific community and then to address it using simple yet effective science and engineering solutions that can be readily adopted and implemented in the community. It is also important for community members who experience inequity to be actively involved in the SI process to help develop the solution and ensure its dissemination and continuous improvement.

Unlike traditional academic STEM research for exploring and publishing new frontiers of science and engineering, the emphasis of SI is on cost effectiveness, which can be achieved through frugal engineering and manufacturing approaches such as components-off-the-shelf and assembly-based manufacturing. Also, open innovation methods (not proprietary and/or patent-protected) ensure wider social effectiveness of the solution instead of the highest technological efficiency.

The examples in table 2 highlight specific areas of basic human need in resource-constrained communities and are well recognized for their success and are presented through the lens of the above-discussed factors of emphasis. They also benefit from an innovator’s approach to servant leadership as discussed by James Hunter (1998). In most cases, the innovators are immersed in the community and have experienced the problem first-hand while understanding the value of a simple solution. They have a better understanding of a solution that is “implementable” and “acceptable” to the community in need through a compassionate approach to bring the necessary change. Based on this understanding, the frugal social innovations as proposed in this paper must be developed with the community as opposed to forcing them on the community. The proposed convergent approach must also include the community itself to ensure that an effective and acceptable solution is developed.

Critical analysis of the representative SIs reported in table 2 provides a sound foundation to develop a frugal engineering and manufacturing model for social equity in the United States. The key metrics and attributes of the model are shown in figure 1.

Malshe figure1.gif

In the United States, SIs using frugal innovation and manufacturing approaches are essential to address a variety of problems concerning the equity gaps. For example, in Los Angeles, rapid covid-19 test strips were developed with participation from scientists and engineers and the support of the political system. The strips could be manufactured at a fraction (5–10 percent) of the standard PCR test cost and could dramatically increase virus detection, according to the LA mayor (LAist 2020). Similar efforts are also used in developing low-cost ventilators and personal protective equipment. This solution relies on a components-off-the-shelf and assembly approach which utilizes components that can be locally manufactured and readily available (-Parmelee 2020). This aspect is especially pertinent in light of the covid-19 pandemic, where relying on large manufacturers and global supply chains caused significant challenges.

Urgent and continued work in frugal engineering and manufacturing is essential for addressing technosocioeconomic inequity in the United States.

Summary and Convergence

Technosocioeconomic inequity is technology-driven at the convergence of basic human needs including water, food, internet connectivity for education, and affordable health care. This inequity exists across growing urban and rural deserts in the United States. As a convergent problem, the potential solutions must involve a convergence of talents from science, engineering, education, economics, policy, community engagement, businesses, and more.

The model of frugal innovations along with manufacturing is executed using key characteristics including implementation of simple science and engineering fundamentals for easy and speedy implementation, use of locally accessible materials and expertise for development and sustainability, frugal manufacturing processes largely driven by the assembly of components-off-the-shelf, an open innovation platform for broad societal participation including members of underprivileged communities, and innovations driven by maximum effectiveness rather than perfect efficiency. Frugal innovations have been effectively implemented by innovators working with and for communities following the attributes of the servant leadership approach. These technosocial innovations are shown to bridge social inequity gaps globally and could be a potent model for addressing technosocioeconomic inequity in the United States.


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The following also contributed to this article: Stacey Connaughton, Samuel Graham, Ben Jones, Shreyes Melkote, Monsuru Ramoni, Arvind Raman, Devesh Ranjan, Joseph Sinfield, John Sutherland, and Yuehwern Yih.


[1]  US Census Bureau QuickFacts: United States ( INC910218)

[2]  The World’s Fresh Water Sources | The 71 Percent ( sources )

About the Author:Ajay Malshe (NAE) is the R. Eugene and Susie E. Goodson Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Purdue University. Dereje Agonafer (NAE) is the Presidential Distinguished Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington. Salil Bapat is a postdoctoral researcher in mechanical engineering at Purdue. Jian Cao is the Cardiss Collins Professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Northwestern Initiative for Manufacturing Science and Innovation at Northwestern University.