Democratizing Innovation

"When I say that innovation is being democratized, I mean that users of products and services -both firms and individual consumers- are increasingly able to innovate for themselves. Users that innovate can develop exactly what they want, rather than relying on manufacturers to act as their (often very imperfect) agents". These are the words with which professor von Hippel starts his book on democratizing innovation. He practices what he preaches: the book is online available on his homepage.

Some interesting notions that can be found in the book:

  • "Why do users often [innovate] for themselves rather than hire a custom manufacturer to develop a special just-right product for them?" According to Von Hippel there are two main reasons: 1) when you innovate for yourself, you definitely act in your own best interest, 2) enjoyment of the innovation process and the learning that comes together with it, is also found to be important! (Chapter 4).
  • When information is sticky, innovators tend to rely largely on information they already have in stock. Users tend to develop innovations that are functionally novel, requiring a great deal of user-need information and use-context information for their development. In contrast, manufacturers tend to develop innovations that are improvements on well-known needs and that require a rich understanding of solution information for their development”. (Chapter 5) .
  • "The empirical finding that users often freely reveal their innovations has been a major surprise to innovation researchers". This happens a lot with e.g. open source-software. Von Hippel answers the question of why: "innovators often freely reveal because it is often the best (...) option available to them. Hiding an innovation as a trade secret is unlikely to be successful for long: too many generally know similar things, and some holders of the "secret" information stand to lose little or nothing by freely revealing what they know”. And: “Users who freely reveal what they have done often find that others then improve or suggest improvements to the innovation, to mutual benefit. Freely revealing users also may benefit from enhancement of reputation, from positive network effects due to increased diffusion of their innovation, and from other factors”. (Chapter 6)
  • User-innovators find various ways to combine and leverage their efforts. Von Hippel mentions informal and organised cooperation in networks and communities. (Chapter 7)
  • Henkel and Von Hippel explored the social welfare implications of user innovation. They found that, relative to a world in which only manufacturers innovate, social welfare is probably increased by the presence of innovations freely revealed by users”. (Chapter 8)

Von Hippel is professor and head of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Group at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He published some articles together with Georg von Krogh.

Von Hippel, E. (2005). Democratizing innovation. Cambridge: MIT Press.