The Hidden Innovators

Suitcase wheels. The heart-lung machine. Basketball. Dropbox. Airbnb. These are all examples of user innovation—concepts and inventions created by individuals seeking to solve a personal need, rather than manufacturers guessing what consumers desire.

“Anytime anybody runs into a big problem and there’s no commercial solution, you’re going to get user innovation,” says Eric von Hippel SM ’68, a pioneer in the field and T. Wilson Professor of Technological Innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “We all have needs, right?” he queries in an online video for the MIT Global Entrepreneurship Bootcamp. “And if it’s really a severe need, you’ll do something about it. It all starts with solving a problem you have.”

Von Hippel was struck by user innovation in his youth, while wandering the halls of MIT, where his father, physicist Arthur Robert von Hippel, taught. The younger von Hippel saw that MIT engineers were building their own tools because manufacturers—so far removed from the process—weren’t even aware of what they needed.

Free Innovation (published by The MIT Press and offered, fittingly, for free download via SSRN.com) is von Hippel’s latest book, and it focuses on the relationship between user innovation and the more entrepreneurial, market-led producer innovation. That link largely goes unmeasured and is therefore often discounted in the study of innovation.

User innovation, he writes, “is an inherently simple, transaction-free, grassroots innovation process.” User innovators are self-rewarded—even if their invention turns out to be commercially viable, during the invention process they are generally unconcerned with market demand, attractive design, or selling concepts to investors. “Free innovation has very important economic impacts but, from the perspective of participants, it is fundamentally not about money.” Paying attention to interactions between the free and producer innovation paradigms, however, can drive competitive or complementary innovation, diffusion, and improved design—gains for society as a whole.

“By exploring more deeply what free innovation is and can become, we can more effectively support its growth and development—and thereby our own.”