Sometimes, we need to sit back and admire just how creative people can be when given the toughest of challenges, and that includes cost.

Browsing through a series of inspirational TED talks, ┬áit is humbling how people have thought so far out the the ‘innovation is expensive’ box that it almost defies belief.

Physicist Manu Prakash realised that standard microscopes simply didn’t cope well with field testing conditions. So he made one that did – out of paper. You literally fold it from a sheet of paper and can use it to diagnose diseases. He has designed individual Foldscopes to diagnose specific conditions, such as malaria, and each Foldscope costs just 50cents to produce.

When Indian innovator Ratan Tata wanted to build a car for just $2000, he found a young design team and gave them the following brief:

“I won’t define the vehicle for you, but I will define the cost for you. It is one lakh, 100,000 rupees, (US$2000) and you are to make it within that. Question the unquestionable. Stretch the envelope.”

Students at Stanford University, set an extreme affordability project to complete, developed a portable incubator for babies that cost just $25 rather than $2000 (or much more). Designed to keep premature babies warm when they can’t regulate their own body temperature, the Embrace infant warmer not only saves lives initially but prevents organ damage due to hypothermia. As team leader Jane Cheng explained:

“We needed something that was portable, something that could be sterilised and reused across multiple babies and something ultra-low-cost.”

The Embrace infant warmer looks more like a sleeping bag for babies than a conventional incubator, and the team aim to save the lives of one million babies in the developing world over the next five years.

“In designing this we followed a few basic principles. We really tried to understand the end user. We tried to understand the root of the problem rather than being biased by what already exists. And then we thought of the most simple solution we could to address this problem.”

Krista Donaldson heads up the D-Rev organisation (short for Design Revolution) which set itself the challenges of developing products for users that earn less than four dollars a day. These include a prosthetic knee for above-knee amputees in poor countries, most of whom have lost their leg in a vehicle accident. Artificial knees made for US war veterans cost upwards of $1500. By paring down to the essentials of the movement required, D-Rev reduced the cost of the knee joint to just $80. More important, says Donaldson, she enabled it to be mass-produced and profitable.

“With centralised manufacturing, you can control the quality control, and you can hit that $80 price point with profit margins built in. And now, those profit margins are critical, because if you want to scale, if you want to reach all the people in the world who possibly need a knee, it needs to be economically sustainable.”

What these innovations share is that the people working on them had the mindset and the permission to approach challenges from a totally different angle. By focussing on the life-saving benefits of ultra low cost, they created products that are both affordable and sustainable – and profitable when mass produced. Each is a reminder that if a business challenge is focussed but not necessarily strictly defined in terms of what the solution is, but what it needs to achieve, the results can be amazing.

So, if you’re looking to engage employees in a business challenge, perhaps setting tight criteria in one sphere and leaving the rest up to their imagination will achieve better results than more overall ‘guidance’. It’s an interesting approach, and with an online ideas network such as TalkFreely, it also becomes very achievable.

So, if you’d like to help your staff make ground-breaking innovations, or even just work better together, call us.