Reinterpeting jugaad: Can Non-Europeans Innovate?

Originally published in The Curiosity Chronicles.

In an article published on the Design Altruism Project, design researcher Sumandro reflects on colonialist readings of jugaad, which is often taken to mean as “startling ingenuity in the face of adversity.” He asks a provocative question: can non-europeans innovate?

Why do the Indians need a special word for a phenomena that Europeans (not in the sense of the continent but in vague civilizational terms) simply call innovation?

He argues that jugaad is not a strategy practiced only by the poor. Instead, he looks at jugaad as a cognitive and strategic response to any unknown, confusing, or potentially overpowering system. Everyone practices jugaad.

Jugaad is neither a strategy of informal product economies, nor does it emanate from the ‘worldview of the poor.’ It is not an artifact of an older community-based sustainable product culture, which is under threat from globalised commodity cultures. It is a form of imagining and engaging with formal systems — of design, of governance, of urban planning and so on… it is practiced by the poor and the rich alike, resulting in widely different ethical and material consequences.”

…The first moment of jugaad lies in being face-to-face with an unknown or exclusive system— be it the modern electricity distribution system or a new car engine. The practitioner of jugaad, or the jugadoo, then addresses this unknown/exclusive but in-your-face system by innovating and often subverting the formal logic of that system— for example, by illegally ‘hooking’ from the official electricity lines, or by repairing the car engine using unorthodox/recycled/self-made parts. This is the second moment of jugaad.

However, Sumatro admits that simply framing jugaad as a respose to an unknown system and subverting its formal logic to suit the user’s need renders his definition to be so general as to be useless. Jugaad is jugaad when it is a shared experience.

Jugaad refers to a culture of understanding and taking part in formal systems, which are unfamiliar but excessively real, and have deep everyday consequences.

In our research with communities traditionally regarded as belonging in the informal economy, such as sari-sari store owners, we’ve seen how the both informal and formal economies are part of a larger financial ecosystem that are in continuous relationship with each other.  Ultimately, the responses of sari-sari owners are fueled by their everyday understanding and experiences of power involving formal systems. The sari-sari store owners we work with are often nanays who bring with them experiences, perceptions, and assumptions related to both to being a parent and being a woman in their particular community. When trying to understand how sari-sari store owners interact with product distributors, what we wish to understand is the logic the distributors mobilize, how sari-sari store owners challenge that logic, and what the corresponding logic is behind their resistance. How they feel engaging with these distibutors, activation agencies, and brands? Do they feel powerless against these formal systems? Do they feel like they can dictate any part of the agreement?

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