Kittihawk, 1903.  Wilbur and Orville Wright, up at an insanely early 5am, listening to the wind singing in the wires of their fragile aircraft.  They’ve been doing this for three years – in fact ever since they had the idea of attaching wings to the bicycles their repair business operated on.  Whatever else drove them to that lonely beach it wasn’t the prospect of making money out of selling aeroplanes – there was no aircraft industry, just a bunch of crazy enthusiasts like them.

Or Louis Plante, a lover of rock music but someone who faced a big problem every time he went to a concert. People generally don’t like coughing during the music – but for Louis it was an essential part of his life. A sufferer since birth with cystic fibrosis coughing was the only way to shake up the fluid in his lungs and allow him to breathe.   During one concert he was sitting close to one of the big PA speakers and suddenly found himself wracked by a particularly strong coughing fit.  It was so strong he was forced to leave the concert – but a spark of an insight began to develop in his engineer’s brain.  It seemed that whenever the bass line was particularly strong this would happen– and he quickly made the connection between his coughing and the low frequency vibrations in the hall. He experimented, swapped ideas with others and eventually developed something called the Frequencer, a device that clears mucus from the lungs as effectively and more gently than traditional clapping therapy does.  Just like the Wright Brothers he didn’t have dreams of avarice – he wanted something for his own benefit and if others could benefit from it, so much the better.

These are two of countless examples of what Eric von Hippel calls ‘free innovation’.  For decades he’s been studying user-led innovation, pointing out that many innovations have their origins not on the drawing boards of large corporations with big R&D facilities but in the experience of frustrated users:

  • Farmers modifying Model T Fords so they are more use around the farm as pickup trucks or animal transporters.
  • Medical professionals developing prototypes of the instruments which will help them carry out a particular procedure more effectively.
  • Or sportsmen and women pioneering the equipment which they use to push the frontiers of the sports they love.

In fact, users have been the original source of many innovative ideas which have later been taken up and developed to scale by manufacturers.

Free innovation (FI) represents an extreme version of this in which the motivation to innovate is essentially not profit seeking. Drawing on the results of extensive research in six advanced industrial countries he suggests that this is not simply a handful of amateurs tinkering at the edge. In the area of ‘household products’:

‘….tens of millions of individuals …have been found to collectively spend tens of billions of dollars in time and materials per year developing products for their own use’. 

These included gardening implements, kitchen devices, child and pet-related equipment through to software and hardware and medical innovations. For all of these millions of innovators the primary motive was ‘self-reward’ – they wanted the things enough to develop them for themselves.

This appears to challenge the foundations of our thinking – after all Schumpeter’s famous and influential model of innovation sees the profit-seeking entrepreneur at the heart of economic growth. But looked at more closely we can see that there are situations – like those above – in which users primary motivation is to solve a problem or develop something they desire for its own sake and not for wider consumption.

This doesn't mean that others can’t benefit – first of all there are clear advantages for the wider community of people with similar interests. Here free revealing and sharing behaviour works to everyone’s advantage – if we each give a little then we soon have a lot. But the opportunity also exists for mainstream producers to pick up on these early ideas and bring them to wider markets, investing their expertise in return for the income streams from those new product categories.

Think about your own experience – chances are that at some time in your life you have spent time as a user innovator – fixing, modifying, adapting and occasionally inventing.  Now multiply that common experience across the population – and you get a glimpse of a powerful but underexplored type of innovation. It's the engine behind some significant developments – for example, communities of free innovators created the early versions of Linux because they shared a desire for better, more robust software.

The book is built on strong and deep research foundations. Based on the early theory around user innovation which emerged in the 1980s with von Hippel’s book ‘The sources of innovation’, a vibrant community has grown up, exploring what innovation means in an era of open and crowdsourced possibilities. Whether it is in social care, computer software, household products or extreme sports, a new approach is emerging around free innovation.

Although he claims that free innovation represents ‘a new paradigm’ von Hippel is at pains to point out that this doesn't mean a competition between this model and the longer-established producer-led (PLI) model. Instead there are real opportunities for the two to work in tandem, exploiting the complementarity between them. In particular:

  • Free innovators pioneer – they want to push frontiers, solve problems because that matters to them. They don't care if there is a market or not, since that is not their focus. So the advantage of free innovation is in the sheer range and diversity of exploration – something no company could justify in its R&D budget without a very clear sense that there would be a significant market for the ideas being explored.
  • Free innovation is also associated with communities of like-minded individuals exploring and sharing around a core theme. These are often diverse and heterogeneous groups with multiple complementary insights – as Karim Lakhani’s work has shown, the real power of crowdsourcing is often not the volume of ideas but the breadth of perspectives and experience which individuals bring.
  • On the other hand the producer-led model can bring to bear significant resources around moving to scale – not only polishing and refining early prototypes for volume production and marketing but also creating platforms across which further free innovation can take place (The thriving Linux community is a good example of this complementary approach in which big players like IBM and Microsoft work alongside the community).
  • And the major limitation with the free innovation model is that the innovator has no motivation to spread their ideas beyond their own application or across the shared community to which they belong. Wider diffusion depends on traditional producers deploying their marketing reach to enable adoption to scale.

Characteristic of any good book on management thinking is its ‘ripple potential’ – how far does its arrival disturb conventional thinking and spread out in many directions, raising questions and opening new avenues. Measured on this scale ‘Free Innovation’ is probably quite a heavyweight with the potential for a big splash. Certainly it raises a whole string of interesting questions – for example:

  • It focuses on product innovation but behind that there is enormous scope for process and service innovation. Almost certainly there are many people stuck in the middle of annoying processes who are innovating to try and improve them, not because they will make money form this but simply to make their job easier to do.
  • And from this it isn't a big leap to the idea of ‘citizen-innovators’ – people whose frustrations with public services and particular needs or desires for making them better spill over into actively developing alternative solutions. Tapping into such ‘bottom-up’ innovation might provide an unexpected alternative to the growing pressures on healthcare, education and other social spending budgets.
  • How could policy-makers intervene to deal with the implied ‘market failure’ around diffusion of free innovations? In particular, given that so many social innovations start life in this fashion how might policy amplify their powerful insights? This is a theme being explored extensively by NESTA in the UK for example.
  • It’s almost certainly worth exploring more around the questions of who is a free innovator and why do they do it? Sometimes it is the sheer pressure of circumstances which force people like Louis Plante to solve a problem. But sometimes it’s a willingness to experiment and a tolerance of good-enough solutions allied to a persistence to make continuous improvements.
  • For organizations operating within the ‘mainstream’ producer-led mode of innovation there are clear opportunities in linking up with the free innovation world. But how to do this effectively and in particular how to develop the trust across the community that you are not a ‘free rider’ but willing and able to make a contribution. One of the common phrases around such approaches is the need to ‘give to get’.
  • And what is the role of collaborative platforms in enabling the linkage between the two worlds? On the one hand platforms are powerful mechanisms for creating live communities of practice focused on particular innovation streams.  And on the other they have the power to connect widely, engage the crowd and perhaps accelerate diffusion.


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