User-driven innovation – a growth area?

Today’s blog entry is my quick reflections from a workshop I participated in earlier this week on user-innovation.

EABIS, the quasi-academic sustainability-focused network, and TUM, the technical university in Munich, are pulling together a bid to the European Commission on the transition to sustainable lifestyles. In the workshop we explored a lot stuff on how to research what, which I won’t touch on.

What struck me more was the increasing  role of user-driven innovation. The academics defined this as innovation where the user was in charge of the process. The contrast is with company-driven innovation, where the company remains in charge even though it may seek more active user input, through competitions for instance.

Now there are a whole class of successful entrepreneurs who started as users. The poster-child in the sustainability movement would probably be Yvon Chouinard. He started as a climber, who made equipment for himself and sold it to his mates to finance his outdoors life. Over time he grew a very successful company – Patagonia.

Historically there were engaged amateurs in science, engineering and more. The 20th century saw the rise of mass production and mass consumption – where big business, big government and big unions created a stable regime for economic growth (what the Regulation School calls the monopolistic mode).

My grandparents grew up in the Great Depression and repaired, knitted and otherwise were at least active users. But the technology in your average car got more complicated, and harder for non-qualified to repair or tinker. Also the financial capital requirements got bigger. In Small is Beautiful, Schumacher contrasts how little money Henry Ford needed to innovate the first Model-T with the financial capital required to produce a new car. (Schumacher said that developing nations shouldn’t try to leap straight to the end, but instead first concentrate on  intermediate technology, with lower resource requirements.)

So, why the change over the coming years? There are various mega-trends that are putting more ability to experiment with non-specialists.

Increasingly those complicated technologies are becoming platforms that an engaged layperson can play with. You don’t need to know how to make a 3D printer, you only need to know how to use it and how to tinker with designs you download off the internet. One of the presentations spoke of a successful German  car club (sorry didn’t get the name) that grew out of a small group deciding they wanted to share their car. The only technology they needed was the booking system, not invent a car. Their innovation was at the level of a business model, not at the level of the technology.

There is something about user-driven innovation that is in the same mood as Web 2.0 – a shift from passive consumption to active participation.

Then you have the combination of low trust in large companies (see yesterday’s blog) and on-going low growth in Europe. One likely response is people becoming more active in their lives, including innovating their own way around specific challenges. Previously they may have been able to afford to buy a solution, or it was worth a company offering a solution. With constrained financial resources, some people will invest their time and probably will find a new sort of meaning for themselves along the way.

There is also some efforts to equip people so they can be innovators. I know that the founders of Technology Will Save Us (a haberdashery for technology and education dedicated to helping people to produce and not just consume technology) think so. In Forum we’re supporting a concept called the Internet of Things Academy that will help people make their own future as everything gets its own IP address.

Also, I can see large companies deciding to provide platforms on which people can make their own innovations and their own businesses. You could argue that eBay, Amazon, Etsy and others already do.

Now, not everyone will be an innovator. Not all those innovations will get beyond friends and families. Not all will make it from small-ish enterprise to big business. But some will (that’s the history of Nike and HP). And just a greater bubbling away of activity of user-innovation, even the individual innovations themselves don’t scale, could well have meso- or macro-consequences.

A rich seam to explore. I do hope the EU funding comes off.

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