Eric von Hippel, “Democratizing Innovation”

In this volume longtime innovation researcher von Hippel makes a broad and strong case for the existence of a general shift toward the democratization of innovation in the form of user-centered design increasingly dominating the process of product innovation. He heralds this shift as enhancing public welfare and providing new opportunities for both users and manufacturers. Building on his extensive previous work on user innovation (which includes both individual users and firms that use the products of others in their own business), he outlines a general model of user innovation that attempts to explain why users innovate so extensively, why they generally give their designs away for free, how this is leading to a paradigm shift in innovation, and how companies can and must adapt to this new hybrid innovation model, which he terms “private-collective” innovation.

According to von Hippel, the primary factors that lead users to innovate are heterogeneity of need, the inherent limitations of traditional manufacturer-centered innovation (which cannot possibly meet the needs of all users and frequently fail to meet the needs of lead users), the social benefits of belonging to an innovation community, and the inherent pleasure of creativity. Users have always innovated by necessity and for pleasure; new computational and informational technologies, however, have vastly increased the speed and effectiveness of user innovation. Many users now have the tools to rapidly design products using simple and user-friendly toolkits, including libraries of basic components and starting designs that allow them to focus on the small area of their actual innovations instead of starting from scratch. New tools and services allow them to prototype their designs simply and cheaply. The result is an explosion of user innovation. This has changed the landscape for manufacturers as they face competition from innovative users who are willing to “freely reveal” their designs, as well as new possibilities of saving R&D money and creating better products through communicating with innovative lead users and utilizing their designs. Many companies are actually doing this successfully.

Von Hippel argues that intellectual property is virtually useless to most innovators: only very large firms benefit from patents or copyrights due to their great expense, and in many cases even those benefits come at the cost of innovation (i.e., defensive patenting). For most innovator’s, then, free revealing generates more benefit than trying to restrict access to their designs through secrecy or intellectual property. This benefits innovation, which can be highly distributed: many innovators, linked together in innovation communities (formal or informal), can far more efficiently tackle a given problem than a centralized, manufacturer-based R&D department. This is because users can harness their own unique experiences and tacit knowledge to address problems that are specific to their use and thus simple for them to overcome through innovative design. Given enough user-innovators, one of them should “fit” any given problem. “The assets of some user will then generally be found to be a just-right fit to many innovation development problems.” (94) By contrast, enormous resources must be channeled into manufacturer innovation that must solve problems without its researchers having any experience or specialization in the specific problems to be overcome. The distributed nature of innovation (the novel combination of pre-existing elements) ensures that in cases where information can be exchanged efficiently, user-innovators will be more efficient than manufacturers when developing innovative products. For von Hippel, this is a function of information transmission and translation. Solution-related information is “sticky” at manufacturer sites of innovation, and need-related information is “sticky” for users.

Of course, this changes but does not eliminate the role of manufacturers. Users can innovate effectively because in the design stage all products are informational products. However, when physical products are being designed, they must be physically manufactured, and manufacturers can produce them must more efficiently and cheaply than users due to specialized equipment and economy of scale. Also, given the stickiness of information for users and manufacturers, it makes sense for manufacturers to partition innovation in order to harness the relative strengths of manufacturer-centered and user-centered innovation. Von Hippel’s example is the pizza pie: manufacturers standardize the dough, overall design, and cooking techniques, leaving the topping design (within certain constraints) up to the customers, who are free to innovate within this “solution space.” Ultimately, von Hippel believes this hybrid model can be applied to most innovation, distributing innovation among many lead user-innovators working in symbiosis with manufacturers, who themselves must adapt to enter into dialog with user-innovators, become more responsive to their needs, provide toolkits so that their designs can be manufactured without significant modification (“translation”) and take advantage of the opportunities for rapid distributed innovation that this new milieu has generated.

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