Community Engagement

Frugality & Sustainable Living


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Even from a young age, Juan Nathaniel’s had his heart in the right place. The Environmental Studies undergraduate has always been fired up about the possibility of innovating for the greater good, but all that remained a pipe dream until last year when his participation in Pioneer House's (PH) Frugal Innovation Challenge took him to Chennai, India.

Having returned with a clearer understanding of how to solve real-world problems, to say the experience was eye-opening might just be a bit of an understatement. Visiting an orphanage, a school for people with autism, and a school for blind people, his interactions with the beneficiaries proved invaluable in not only helping his team devise solutions to their needs, it also compelled him to reconsider what it meant to give back and what “frugality and sustainability” stood for.

Like most people, Juan often associated the term with responsible consumption. Taught mostly on the aspect of the natural world when discussing sustainability, like how a habitat can be conserved for example, he says it has never crossed his mind that there could be a social dimension to the theme. And in Chennai, almost 3,000 km away from home, he had found his missing link.

“The one thing that was absent from my initial idea of frugality and sustainability is the aspect of humans. I grew to realise that without engaging and getting to know people, all these efforts would not have been as effective. Without interacting with the locals in Chennai and diving in head first to know the real situation there, I would not be able to appreciate the centrality of humans in guiding our frugal innovation and sustainable living strategies,” he explains.

In fact, some of the best memories of the trip had nothing to do with work. Despite having just met Juan and his team, one of the children with autism had felt safe enough to express heartfelt greetings with them, offering an unexpected moment of tenderness between both parties that is unforgettable.

Juan is more motivated than ever. Whether it’s working for change in the agriculture industry where he hopes to improve the lives of impoverished farmers, or simply by putting others ahead of himself, the programme has given him new perspectives on giving back.

“I think the hallmark of being human is to care for others,” he contemplates. “But we can’t love what we don’t know. So exposing oneself does help in cultivating the sense, motivation, and purpose of caring for others. But knowing is not enough, committing oneself to do it requires consistent baby steps that will become leaps if we do it enough.”

And hopefully, practise will make perfect.

“It’s the kind of thing you get better at each day and a mindset we need to nurture for a very long time. I'm trying my best to embrace such values by learning it day by day!”


Contributed by: Juan Nathaniel

Editor: Ho Boon Yeow