Users start innovating for themselves

Users start innovating for themselves

In a world of constant commercialization and patenting of every innovation, even those needed to cure very serious diseases, the lion’s share of the scientific community consisting of eminent experts propose the free sharing of knowledge and synergy between manufacturing companies and product users-perceivers to accelerate the development of new technologies. MIT’s distinguished economist Eric von Hippel, the founder of the lead user’s theory of innovation, explains to Kathimerini how product user-receivers contribute to the development of many innovations that are later brought to market through large multinational companies.

Professor Hippel, the author of the freely distributed works “Democratizing Innovation” and “Free Innovation,” criticizes the commercialization of knowledge as an end in itself and explains the importance of creating an ecosystem of free innovations and transforming the entrepreneurial spirit.

What are the principles and possible barriers of the lead user’s innovation theory and how is this theory transforming the current commercialized innovation dogma?

For many years, until the arrival of the digital age and the internet age, producers had a big innovation advantage over consumers who wanted to develop products to suit their own needs. Producers had a lot of specialized equipment and specialized teams of innovation developers, so could develop products individual users could not afford to develop for themselves.

Today, that picture has entirely changed. Because of the internet, lead users who are interested in developing something new for themselves today can easily get together and generate a virtual team of experts with the same or bigger scale as manufacturers’ innovation teams. They also get free access to digital design tools shared under open free access policies – including the most advanced digital simulation and AI tools. The result is that lead users are these days as well-equipped as producers to innovate – and they have a huge advantage too: They know their own, leading-edge needs much better than producers do. The result is that today, teams of users can develop new products and services as cheaply or more cheaply than producers – and the products consumers develop often serve their needs better.

Let me give an example. Today, there are 9 million people in the world with type 1 diabetes – the most serious form of that disease. Medical equipment producers had developed products for those patients – but many things users really wanted were not available, despite users’ repeated requests. For example, there was no capability offered to remotely monitor young children’s blood sugar levels when they were away from their parents at school or at a sleepover. And, there was no way to automatically supply insulin according to rules tailored to each user. When asked for these improvements, producers would say: “It is complicated – wait patiently – we will get to it” – and then they would not develop what was needed for years.

Finally, users lost patience and formed the NightScout product development collaboration made up of unpaid volunteers. Understandably, the motto of this user group was, “We are NOT waiting.” This group had many highly skilled engineers who had diabetes or diabetic children of their own. It took them just a few months to develop all the modifications and innovations they had been waiting for. Then, they offered their designs for free to any patients – and producers who wanted them. Today, the producers have been spurred to action by what the patients did for themselves – and the user innovations are also available commercially. The patient-innovators are delighted at this outcome. But it also shows the producers clearly that they are no longer the only innovators around: If they do not create what users need, the users will develop their own solutions for themselves.

Why should companies accept a cheaper innovative ecosystem which runs on users’ innovations?

Well, they do not have to. They can ignore user innovations if they like – but to do that would not be economically wise. Instead, they should learn to work with innovating lead users. We have found that it will save them money to do this. What companies need to do is supplement their market research departments that have historically searched just for unfilled user needs. They need to modify their search process so that they also look for prototype innovations that users – their potential customers – have developed for their own needs, and have tested in actual field use.

How is a user’s idea/patent secured from the potential commercialization and exploitation by a third-party user?

It is not. In general, the interesting thing about user innovation is that the user innovators are developing their new products for personal reward, not to sell them. So when you are developing an artificial pancreas to help your child with type 1 diabetes you are not expecting to be rewarded by selling the design – you are rewarded by creating a solution that will help your child. And when you are working with others you are also sharing your designs openly and freely.

Of course, this pattern goes well beyond medical equipment. In the area of sports, skateboarders and mountain bikers collaboratively develop and test the equipment they need – they are the ones that built the first skateboards and mountain bikes and shared their designs openly. If a manufacturer wants to produce and sell what they have developed, well and good. The users want to be spending their time enjoying their sport instead of spending time in their basement building a copy of a lead user design. And even if someone wanted to patent the innovation, they really could not because it was collaboratively developed by many – who was the “inventor” was not clear. Of course, manufacturers can develop and patent improvements to the original user designs – and they often do that in order to get an advantage over their commercial rivals.

Are you afraid that through the use of AI, we are going to have a lack of genuine ideas and innovations?

No. AI and other new tools will simply empower users – and producers – to do even more. There is never a shortage of very good and very original ideas.

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