A company that produces radiators that heat homes for free by using spare energy from computer servers is part of a wave of businesses embracing the concept of doing more with less, an idea known as frugal innovation.
French company Qarnot has developed small devices known as Q.rads, tiny remote computers that when networked together have the capacity to provide a cloud computing service to companies such as banks, 3D animation studios and research labs.
The heat generated by the Q.rads, which are situated in residential and public buildings, is then used to heat the buildings, cutting the occupants’ utility bills and providing an outlet for the excess energy generated by computer servers. Usually, cloud computing services are located in large, remote data centres which require a lot of cooling.
Qarnot’s founder, Paul Benoit, said he got the idea when working for a large bank and saw that while they required more and more computing capacity, this didn’t necessarily need to be provided by one large data centre. Instead, a large number of small microprocessors distributed over a network could do the same job – and provide an added bonus at the same time.
‘It was a geek idea,’ he said. ‘The big issue with data centres is all the heat generated. And the biggest problem with homes is how to heat them.’
In order to balance the computing needs of its clients with the temperature requirements of people who live in the buildings, Qarnot has developed software to control which Q.rads are working when.
The Q.rads are monitored remotely, meaning that residents can opt out of a yearly visit by a technician if they prefer. And if one does break down, it's a five minute job to swap it out for a new one.
While Q.rads are currently located mainly in social housing blocks or buildings with an office and housing mix, most of which are in France, the vision is to use the technology to create smart buildings where all the data generated and used within the building is stored in its own local cloud.
‘Frugal innovation is about tailoring solutions to what is really needed.’
Dr Henning Kroll, Fraunhofer ISI, Germany
‘The buildings of the future will need computation power for itself. The heating system is the best place to put this. It’s stupid to build a computer room that you have to cool.’
Qarnot’s approach is one of a wave of new products and services being produced under a concept known as frugal innovation. The underlying idea is to strip away optional extras and prioritise features that are really necessary for customers, using fewer resources in the process.
Experts say this approach is contrary to how many companies design new products, where new features are added because they can be, rather than because they need to be.
Dr Henning Kroll from the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research in Karlsruhe, Germany, said: 'In technologically inclined fields of our economy we tend to do what is possible … whereas on the market people may only practically need 30 % of (the features). Frugal innovation is about tailoring solutions to what is really needed.’
He was one of the authors of a report commissioned by the EU and published in March, which investigated the potential of frugal innovation for European industry and consumers.
The concept has grown out of products aimed at emerging markets in poorer parts of the world. Companies often develop a no-frills version for these markets, and Kroll believes that demand for a more utilitarian approach is on the rise in Europe, presenting new business opportunities for companies.
‘A good number of European customers are open to buying basic, reliable products as long as they uphold known quality levels,' he said.
'In the past, European engineers have been very successful in designing frugal cars like the VW Beetle, the Citroen 2CV or the Mini Cooper. More recently, these experiences have been built upon by engineers at Dacia and Skoda.'
Madeleine Gabriel from Nesta, a UK charity that promotes innovation, was joint editor of the EU study. She says that there is also potential for a frugal approach to be taken towards products and services for use in the cost-conscious public sector.
‘Big drivers (include) the fact that demand for healthcare is increasing as the population lives longer and traditional healthcare systems are struggling to keep up,' she said. 'There’s a clear need to do things more efficiently.’
She points to a company – Peek Vision – which developed hardware that clips onto a smartphone and enables people to carry out eye tests. Originally developed for use in Kenya, the device can be used by non-specialists and then the results analysed by experts.
And she says it’s not just products that can be approached frugally, but also services. ‘The reason the Peek solution is much more affordable is not only because the technology is cheaper but also the way it allows you to use people resources. In our public services it’s often people resources that are the most expensive thing so we need to use those really effectively.’
For her, the key thing that could spread the frugal approach more widely is education and training.
‘One thing is about teaching this in universities and (getting rid of the) mindset that higher technology is always better. And the other side of that is around interdisciplinary learning. Perhaps when we’re training engineers, (we should be) getting them to work with designers, with social scientists and others, because it’s really about trying to understand how people use technology.’
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