Dark matters of innovation

The NY Times writes about a study by Eric von Hippel, from MIT Sloan School of Management, who revealed pretty astonishing facts about innovation activities run by ‘ordinary people’ (as opposed to all sort of professional innovation bodies, like the labs and R&D centers). According to his findings, “the amount of money individual consumers spent making and improving products was more than twice as large as the amount spent by all British firms combined on product research and development over a three-year period (2.3 times more, to be precise – see the abstract of this paper Comparing Business and Household Sector Innovation in Consumer Products).

He and his team argue that the traditional model of innovation (and of business in general) – that is, that the companies innovate and produce, and consumers pay and consume – is beeing seriously challenged and currently is being transformed into something more democratic, open and collaborative. “This is a new pattern for how innovations come about”, says Prof. von Hippel, that requires to rethink not only specific patent laws or R&D programs, but innovation policy and practices in general (including the funding I assume).

This doesn’t sound like a particularly striking discovery for me (but I was studying the patters of co-creation and people-driven innovation for years), but may sound shocking for many business managers and designers, for that matter). I remember a presentation by Amar Bhidé, at the World Congress of Information Technology in Amsterdam last year, where he told about “venturesome consumption”, a much more complex network of relationships, beyond mere ‘we innovate – you consume’. But I also remember that the audience of IT generals was slightly puzzled with his speech.

It’s noticeable that the study was financed by the British government; there is also interest in smilier studies from the Finnish and Portuguese governmental organizations, but not the US ones, where the innovation by research labs and companies is a deeply entrenched practice (Bhidé, in fact, also mentioned that, as a factor inhibiting our recovery from recession and stagnation). Read more in the paper Innovation Far Removed From the Lab

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