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Democratizing Innovation – Eric von Hippel

In this book Eric von Hippel describes the phenomenon of user-generated innovation. He finds out that manufacturers are not the only ones that innovate: sometimes it happened that users made the innovations that satisfied their needs. He provides some example and studies the features and effects of that process.

First of all he explains the definition of “user”: an individual can be a user, but also a firm can be considered a user, for example a user of machinery and production tools. So we can have 2 kinds of user innovation: the former generated by individuals, like the new models of windsurf board that some athlete realized in order to perform jumps and acrobatics, and the latter innovation generated by user firms, for example a firm that builds it’s own machinery needed to produce the final good.

It is important to not confuse “user innovation” with the innovation generated by “learning by using” (as studied by Rosenberg), even if the two concepts are relatives. In “learning by using” users discover important features and communicate them back to the manufacturer, so the manufacturer can improve the product and incorporate in it the new knowledge. This process has to pass through the manufacturer. In “user innovation”, users directly improve the product or build it from scratch: there is not a necessary passage to any manufacturer (even if it is not excluded, in case a firm wants to produce and sell it).

Von Hippel explores the reasons why some users decide to innovate and why they let available to others their innovation without protecting it with patents. He analyses the formation of user innovation communities, and give some suggestion both about policy and business.  This book (and more generally the studies of von Hippel about user innovation) is important because it explains a phenomenon that often stays in the shade: it’s a common belief that only manufacturers innovate. Moreover, these findings show how much innovation is a social process without clear bounds.

Anyway, to be intellectually honest, one observation should be made: it is not clear at the moment if “user innovation” represents actually a relevant part of all innovations or if it is rather a minor phenomenon. After all, examples of it are not many, with a  majority of them confined within the software or sports domains. In addition, many open source software can’t be considered “user innovation” because they are developed by commercial firms, and not specifically for internal usage.

A digital version of the book can be downloaded here: http://web.mit.edu/evhippel/www/democ1.htm .

 


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