on July 7th, 2010

Dear Colleagues

Many of us tend to regard the developing (poorer) world as a great market for our so-called innovative products from the west. Let’s face it - with the inevitable doomsday talk of a double dip recession, there is a heightened twitchiness around the world at present, so any new market in which to sell our services and products is welcome. However, there is a rapidly developing area where new products are being designed and built in the developing (or poorer) world; this process is sometimes referred to as ‘reverse innovation’. Examples range from the $2500 Tata Nano car, the $70 portable refrigerator and the $1000 handheld electrocardiogram (EKG) device – all developed in the developing world. These products are now being marketed into other western countries.

See the end of this article to download a useful 22 p. chapter on the fundamentals of Electrical Power Distribution.

Reverse Engineering Innovation

Perhaps a generalisation, but often engineers from western countries tend to focus on improving existing products (which are perhaps lower risk) rather than thinking of low cost solutions to new problems. In addition, designing and creating new products is an expensive process; no-one tends to focus on high return products oriented towards a western market.

The process of reverse innovation is the alternative approach of developing low cost innovative products in the developing world. This is naturally of tremendous interest to the developing world. Engineering professionals here (in the developing world) are actively working on innovative products for their markets and also to launch these into the western world.

Oddly enough, inadequate infrastructure in the developing world (eg. the telecommunications fixed line system) is often an opportunity to provide alternative lower cost solutions (such as wireless). In the western world, this may actually be a hindrance to promoting new technologies as one has to convince existing users to change. As we all know, this is often extraordinarily hard.

So where do we go from here?

  • Talk to your clients and marketing department about innovative new solutions which are suited to the developing world rather than your traditional western world markets.
  • Consider ways of re-designing your products to fit needs in the developing world which are both innovative and low cost.
  • Look for partners in the developing world to develop new innovative products suitable initially for these markets and then for the western world.

Thanks to John Platt of the IEEE for a great article and Prof. Vijay Govindarajan for coining the term ‘reverse innovation’.


Yours in engineering learning,


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