1:45 pm
Tue July 24, 2012

Necessity Really Does Mother Invention

Consumers often make things to use rather than to sell. They are behind many of the product modernizations of companies like Proctor and Gamble, but they’re not interested in the advertising side of innovation. Instead, users benefit simply from having their needs satisfied, while producers benefit from sales. 

Sports – Most sports, and almost all sports equipment, started as the result of user innovation. Kitesurfing and mountain biking, once regarded by producers as laughable diversions, started attracting corporate attention when users pioneered and began regularly practicing these activities. If not for users, shock absorbers would not be on your mountain bike, because in fact mountain bikes would not exist!

Baby Jogger – When journalist Phil Bachelor’s wife told him to stroll the baby, he said he wanted to go for a run instead. But his wife insisted, and Bachelor quickly got to work turning his baby’s stroller into something he could take out for a run. Spotted around town with his innovation, he quickly realized that other people wanted to do the same thing, and a company was born.

CHDK – CHDK, or Canon Hacker’s Development Kit, originated when Canon camera users became frustrated with the company’s firmware and market segmentation strategies. For instance, many users wanted to shoot raw photographs or have access to raw sensor data, a feature that allows for dark room-style effects. With CHDK, users can essentially hack their cameras to use lightning, high-speed, and high-dynamic range photography — innovation that enables them to “teach the dog new tricks.”

3-D Printers – When products like clothespins used to break on consumers, they found themselves stuck with these inferior products. Now users can employ 3-D printers to print out an exact replica of a clothespin (or any other product they’ve developed), rather than wait for it to be manufactured and mass-produced by a major company.

Under Armour Labs – Under Armour’s innovation labs encourage consumers, sports teams, and outside companies to reach out to the company in order to continually revolutionize sportswear concepts. Welcoming new surges of creativity provides a reciprocal benefit for users as well as producers.

Apps – Apple now openly embraces the user-generated mobile applications they initially rejected (and even prevented). Now, consumer-designed apps serve as one of the biggest selling points of new smartphones.

LEGO – LEGO consumers can now use online platforms to share their LEGO designs, a concept that now helps the company create new design kits. Visit their website to get a glimpse of the amazing user designs.

Eric von Hippel, professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Business
Carliss Baldwin, professor at Harvard Business School
Benjamin Mako Hill, Ph.D. candidate at MIT and user-innovator