Eric von Hippel coined the concept of Lead User research. His latest study aims to map the extent of user modification in products and quntifiably compare it with the amount spent on corporate R&D.
…To Ms. Baldwin and others who study innovation, the results point to the necessity of rethinking patent law as well as government incentives for research and open sourcing. As Stian Westlake, executive director of policy and research at the British National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, put it in a report: “This democratization of innovation has potentially critical implications for innovation policy.”
The types of product modifications and innovations that Mr. von Hippel’s group found among the nearly 1,200 people surveyed ranged from the most elementary to the complex. One woman colored two halves of a clock dial different shades to teach her children how to tell time; a man concocted a device made from a fishing rod and a large hook to trim his treetops; another reprogrammed his GPS unit to make it easier to use and tailored to his needs.
The Internet is an obvious engine of consumer innovation in the digital realm. Twitter’s List and Retweet features, for example, were inspired by users. While consumers have always fiddled with products, the Web makes it so much easier for people with similar interests to come together and form online communities like DIYbookscanner.
The very study of collaborative user innovation is a relatively new phenomenon that began only in the mid-1990s when advocates for open-source software began to argue that computer code should be freely available for thousands of independent minds to play with and improve. “They overturned the widely held model,” Ms. Baldwin said.
The Western tradition of the isolated heroic genius toiling away in a lab or study is based on myth as much as fact, she added. That model has had a powerful impact, helping to discount the more collaborative aspects of innovation, but it is “completely dated,” Ms. Baldwin said.