Book review: Frugal Value Designing Business for a Crowded Planet

Publication Date: 

Monday, 3 July 2017 - 11:26am

Author: 

Ken Webster

The idea of frugal anything is not a great attraction in a book title. The word doesn’t frame well outside of a Calvinistic or ascetic mindset. The idea of ‘de-growth’ pops up very early here as well, a word with even worse connotation. Linking frugal and de-growth concepts with business value seems even stranger. However, I thought it was bold and intriguing enough, to turn a few pages, if only to find out how it connects with a circular economy. I am glad I did. It turns out this short book is a recommended read for three main reasons.

“…environmentalists promoting resource efficiency exclusively have been barking up [the] wrong tree. To make up for the shortcomings of resource efficiency, frugal product designers must also aim for ‘resource sufficiency’— that is to say, products that help reduce resource use overall, and are not simply a more efficient version of another object (…) resource-sufficient product is to create a product that restricts or inhibits the creation of other artefacts.”

Indeed, transport as a service, based on autonomous vehicles with high utilisation and extended product life should not only mean a fraction of the number of vehicles, but emissions reductions, widespread employment dislocation, and thus lowered costs. Would it ‘inhibit the creation of other artefacts’? Perhaps, looking at the transport sector in isolation, but it might depend on where any freed up spending went, what was on offer and how that had been designed too. When it comes to ‘sufficiency’ there is an assumption that the aim is meeting human needs rather than people’s seemingly endless wants. Millstone has a lot of faith in human nature and believes in reasonableness. I hope she is right.

Secondly, the book is very useful on the practical demands and opportunities of shifting to a ‘slow, circular economy’ – looking at the business, product and system design cases in particular. It is hard not to be convinced that this change is worthwhile. She usefully distinguishes the businesses around product stewardship (where selling takes place in a combination with services, such as upgrades, maintenance, take-back) and product access (where ownership remains with the manufacturer or agent).

“The frugal value created by pioneering companies delivers customer satisfaction while creating a successful, worthwhile business. The pioneering company contributes to absolute resource use reduction, develops models that support steadiness of resource use, and helps to build socio-economic resilience. In doing so, it addresses the great challenges of our time …”

Frugal doesn’t sound so bad. It is frugal on resources, big on value added but never far away is the niggling tone and language of the person uncomfortable with industry, commerce and especially globalisation and consumerism. This shows up in the third reason to read this book.

In imagining how system conditions might be changed it is easy to demand the impossible, the unworkable or unimaginable. She manages to invoke all three. For Carina, the future is one where the governance question is front and centre. It is a world inhabited by a revived democracy making decisions based on scientific and ethical foundations at the appropriate level – more local and less centralised – as to what resources should enter the system and how they are managed. As she puts it:

“The establishment of regulations to frame markets and organisations around a de-growth paradigm, and the institution of a new relationship to the resources that power our economy, which should instead be understood as a global commons to be managed on the principles of sustainability.”

She then insists that these lofty aspirations could be brought, in part, by pioneering companies. Maybe sometime along the road… And still, the book is worth reading. Love it or hate it, Frugal Value is always thought provoking. It contains many useful tables and explanatory diagrams, a good glossary and informed bibliography. It certainly helps contextualise the circular economy as more than a bolt on to an economy with some troubling resource issues. There is much more at stake in terms of how we think of the world and the place of business in it. Importantly Frugal Value helps the open minded reader to ascertain their own values and assumptions more clearly. Sometimes this is very uncomfortable, yet Darwin reminded us that ‘doubt is the beginning of wisdom’. Let’s welcome doubt!

Frugal Value Designing Business for a Crowded Planet
Designing Business for a Crowded Planet
Carina Millstone
Routledge
ISBN is 9781783533381 ; 210 pages, £24.99 – May 2017

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