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The Honda Fit represents the JGE trend in automotive design.
In the past year or so, we at Changeist have been talking about the concept of Just Good Enough, or what we call JGE for short. Thinking about JGE stemmed initially from study of how technologies are being developed or modified within the developing world for use there. Where resources such as energy, money or space are constrained, the lowest appropriate level of complexity, cost, functionality, or what have you, is what's needed. Anything else is a luxury--and expendable.

So, for example, why build a $20,000 luxury sedan when all the market needs is something slightly better and safer than a tuk-tuk? Hence, Tata has given us the Nano--the one lahk (100,000 rupees or about $2,500) vehicle that is suited to the needs of a growing sector of Indian society, somewhere below the middle of the pyramid, who need basic transportation that goes from point A to point B, at a minimal cost and with some basic trappings of safety. Pragmatism trumps the need for status in this sort of environment, the polar opposite of much of the developed world, particularly the US.

Or, when you have a house that is 75 square meters, share it with several generations of family, and don't have much privacy, why spend a huge portion of your salary for a desktop PC when your mobile phone does just what you need it to, well enough? If it carries an address book, has adequate basic Internet access for lo-fi text browsing, and allows you to stay in contact with friends and loved ones, then it IS a PC.

Only now, in the face of peaking technological and system complexity as well as against the backdrop of an entrenched economic downturn, is the idea of JGE catching in North America above the level of lower-middle class households. When disposable incomes are high, consumers are drawn to shiny premium features, always looking for a way to trade up to a higher level of product or service to show status. For the last 40 years, Americans bought because they could, even acknowledging economic trade-offs were being made by saving here for a premium service there, or Trading Up as Boston Consulting Group calls it.

Now, in the cold light of economic contraction, attention has turned to JGE: living with just enough money to get by, buying only what you need to be moderately happy or simply get through to the next paycheck. Buying vehicles in terms of tonnage has been replaced by buying ones that can do the basic job with a minimum of necessary styling. Basic coffee in a cup has moved into the space where exotic beans from obscure rift valleys used to sit. Inexpensive, low-end laptops look attractive alongside high-cost, bulky widescreen models. Consumers aren't going out buying expensive mountain or road bikes in the face of rising fuel costs, but basic cruisers are flying off the racks at bike shops.

These are only weak signals at the moment. The vehicles and laptops cited above are signals that have come from elsewhere. Europe and Asia have had low-impact city cars for some time, though R&D efforts to create not only cleaner but lighter vehicles for global markets has given this sector a boost. Lighter weight, cheaper basic laptops emerged in large part from efforts to create affordable devices for developing countries. Intel's competitive actions in the face of the OLPC helped spur OLPC clones for developed markets at just the right time.

Nonetheless these signals are coming in greater numbers, showing a growing demand for products and services that are appropriate for their circumstances and fit available resources in place of premium for the sake of premium. Prime areas of growth for JGE are housing, clothing, household items, personal care, consumer electronics, financial services, food and beverage: all areas where premium services exploded in the past decade, but which are seeing innovations in developing markets that can move to the developed world to suit the growing need in increasingly strapped developed markets.

Implications:

  • Slower replacement cycles for products. Consumers will hold on to both costly and everyday products longer, from smartphones to running shoes. Lower cost durability needs to be engineered in, with the potential to upcycle -- use the same platform and renew components as needed.
  • Greater interest in the simple choices. All-you-can eat services with high pricetags are set aside for basics at a manageable, transparent cost.
  • Greater need to focus points of delight. With most frills stripped away, companies will need to focus on points of delight such as hidden utility to provide consumers with clever functionality at a low cost. Think "virtual" GPS on the iPhone, or fold-up back seats in the Honda Fit.

(Image: Michaela./Flickr)

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