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Democratizing Innovation

Helping your customers create your next products.

Creators of products and services traditionally have continued to improve those offerings to meet the evolving needs of users. Just when you think there is no way to better the household vacuum, along comes a model that floats on air.

But today the seeds of innovation are changing. Thanks to ever more powerful technology, users are increasingly modifying, improving upon, and developing on top of the products they buy—everything from windsurfing boards to custom chips. In this new book, MIT professor Eric von Hippel calls this trend the democratization of innovation, and it has profound implications for manufacturers.

In a concise 200 pages, von Hippel traces the empirical studies on user innovation, determining that between 10 and 40 percent of users engage in developing or modifying products. These "lead users" are ahead of the curve and often create improvements to products that other users will want to share.

Democratizing Innovation looks at which users are likely to innovate, why they decide to build it themselves rather than buy an improvement, the tradition of user-innovators who freely reveal their innovations, and how manufacturers can tap into this creativity.

"Users' ability to innovate is improving radically and rapidly as a result of the steadily improving quality of computer software and hardware, improved access to easy-to-use tools and components for innovation, and access to a steadily richer innovation commons," says the author.

As a result, manufacturers must change their mindset from "Let's find a need and fill it" to "Let's find and commercialize innovations that our users have developed." Writes von Hippel: "A variety of manufacturers have found it profitable to shift the tasks of custom product design to their customers along with appropriate toolkits for innovation."

What kinds of products can come out of such user-centered innovation? Von Hippel looks at his own research at 3M, which develops products both by following a lead-user approach and by more traditional product development processes. The customer-centric products 3M has worked on include a new approach to preventing infections from surgery; a pioneering use of audio, video, and remote data access in electronic test and communication equipment; a novel approach to applying commercial graphics films such as those that provide advertising wrapped around buses; and more effective and environmentally safe packing materials.

In general, ideas generated by lead users at 3M were not only more novel, with a much greater potential for revenue creation, but they also were found to "address more original or newer customer needs, to have significantly higher market share, to have greater potential to develop into an entire product line, and to be more strategically important," writes von Hippel.

It may be time to think of your customer not only as profit but as partner.—Sean Silverthorne

Also see: Where is Consumer Generated Marketing Taking Us?