User innovation and co-creation are taking over the world — recent articles in The New York Times and The Economist

User innovation in the press In the last few days, two of the leading global media outlets, The New York Times and The Economist, had quite extensive articles on user innovation, customization, and co-creation.

On February 10, 2011, on page C1 of the New York edition of The New York Times, Patricia Cohen writes about "Innovation Far Removed From the Lab",

The article is a great praise and acknowledgment of the work done by Eric von Hippel: Here are some quotes from the article I liked most:


[…] Since the Austrian economist Joseph A. Schumpeter published “The Theory of Economic Development” in 1934, economists and governments have assumed that the industrial and business sectors are where ideas for products originate. A complex net of laws and policies, from intellectual property rights to producer subsidies and tax benefits, have flowed from this basic assumption.

However, pathbreaking research by a group of scholars including Eric A. von Hippel, a professor of technological innovation at M.I.T.’s Sloan School of Management, suggests that the traditional division of labor between innovators and customers is breaking down.  […]

Financed by the British government, Mr. von Hippel and his colleagues last year completed the first representative large-scale survey of consumer innovation ever conducted.

What the team discovered … was that the amount of money individual consumers spent making and improving products was more than twice as large as the amount spent by all British firms combined on product research and development over a three-year period.

[…]  Carliss Y. Baldwin, a business administration professor at the Harvard Business School, called the research remarkable, adding: “What makes Eric’s work so significant is that it is unprecedented to try to measure the extent of user innovation. He shows that we’ve had on a set of mental blinders.”

This is the UK study the NYT is referring to is: Von Hippel, Eric A., De Jong, Jeroen and Flowers, Steven, Comparing Business and Household Sector Innovation in Consumer Products: Findings from a Representative Study in the UK (September 27, 2010). Available at SSRN:

The Economist takes on another aspect that somehow is complementing user innovation: Fabbing and the rise of additive manufacturing technologies for the average consumer.

In the Technology section of the Feb 10th 2011 print edition, the article "Print me a Stradivarius: How a new manufacturing technology will change the world" reviews the recent developments of aditive manufactuing and what this means for the world of manufacturing. Nothing less than a revolution, the Economist suggests.

Again some quotes from the article:

"[…] By reducing the barriers to entry for manufacturing, 3D printing should also promote innovation. If you can design a shape on a computer, you can turn it into an object. You can print a dozen, see if there is a market for them, and print 50 more if there is, modifying the design using feedback from early users. This will be a boon to inventors and start-ups, because trying out new products will become less risky and expensive. And just as open-source programmers collaborate by sharing software code, engineers are already starting to collaborate on open-source designs for objects and hardware.

A technological change so profound will reset the economics of manufacturing. Some believe it will decentralise the business completely, reversing the urbanisation that accompanies industrialisation. There will be no need for factories, goes the logic, when every village has a fabricator that can produce items when needed. Up to a point, perhaps. But the economic and social benefits of cities go far beyond their ability to attract workers to man assembly lines. […]

Just as nobody could have predicted the impact of the steam engine in 1750—or the printing press in 1450, or the transistor in 1950—it is impossible to foresee the long-term impact of 3D printing. But the technology is coming, and it is likely to disrupt every field it touches. Companies, regulators and entrepreneurs should start thinking about it now. One thing, at least, seems clear: although 3D printing will create winners and losers in the short term, in the long run it will expand the realm of industry—and imagination."

Both articles also show why the new "Open Source Hardware" definition is so important: It will become the intellectual underpinning of user innovators using the new fabbing technologies to produce — and distribute — the next wave of innovation collaboratively.

About the Author:

Frank T. Piller is a Co-Director of the MIT Smart Customization Group at the MIT Media Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, and a chair professor of management at the Technology & Innovation Management Group of RWTH Aachen University, Germany, one of Europe’s leading institutes of technology. Before entering his recent position in Aachen, he worked at the MIT Sloan School of Management (2004-2007) and has been an associate professor of management at TUM Business School, Technische Universitaet Muenchen. Frequently quoted in The New York Times, The Economist, and Business Week, amongst others, Frank is regarded as one of the leading experts on strategies for customer-centric value creation, like mass customization, personalization, and innovation co-creation. His recent analysis of the crowdsourcing business model “Threadless” (co-authored with Susumu Ogawa), an innovative crowdsourcing business model in the fashion industry, has been elected as one of the Top-20 articles in MIT Sloan Management Review.