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Innovation Blog

 Where Does Innovation Come From?  R&D? Or “Dark Matter”?

By Shlomo Maital


Eric von Hippel and user-created innovations   


 Innovation, much of it, comes not from institutionalized R&D funded by companies, but rather from tinkerers and users, who have a real need and solve it inventively with their own two hands.

      Eric von Hippel is an MIT scholar who pioneered research showing ‘lead users’ can be enormously valuable to companies, who want to improve their products. Now, with a British study funded by the British government, he conducted the first large-scale survey of consumer innovation ever done. *

    The astonishing result:  The amount of money individual consumers spent in making and improving products was more than twice the amount spent on product research and development by all British companies combined, over a three-year period.  It makes sense – there are probably 20 million British consumers, and perhaps 1/100 that number of R&D engineers.   Von Hippel will replicate his study in Finland and in Portugal.

     Harvard Business School professor Carliss Baldwin says, “we’ve had on a set of mental blinders”, because we have missed, or underplayed, this key source of inventive progress.

   “We’ve been missing the dark matter of innovation,” von Hippel said, meaning,  just as dark (i.e. not visible or detectable) matter exists, because otherwise the universe would not be expanding, even though we can’t really see it, so does consumer –driven innovation exist, though we don’t really see it (until now).   Von Hippel says 77 per cent of scientific instrument innovation come from users in the field.  One of the implications?  Change patent law, to enable people to build on others’ ideas without fear of law suits.

    Does von Hippel practice what he preaches?  He does indeed.  His book Democratizing Innovation is available for free, by download from his personal website, even though the standard print version is published by MIT Press.  I wonder how he managed to persuade MIT Press that free downloads actually boost print book sales.  

    I am certain that this type of small-scale one-off innovation is crucial.  Think of all the times you have taken a product, and in small ways changed it to improve it.  Now, imagine if you had shared these ideas with the world, using Internet, the way Daniel Reetz did.

       Reetz built a commercial book scanner, that normally costs $10,000, out of two old Canon A590    Powershot cameras, using parts rescued from junkpiles.  Total cost:  $300.   He can scan a 400-page book with it in 20 minutes!  Reetz uploaded his do-it-yourself product to, 1,000 people joined his forum on that site, and 50 people actually built the scanner.

    Do you have an innovation, small or big?  Tell the world about it.  Share it.  If enough of us do this, a wave of innovation will wash over the globe, enriching all our lives.   

* Patricia Cohen, “Turning innovation on its head”,  Global New York Times, Feb. 11, 2011, p. 18


Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
February 2011
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