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Ideas Made to Matter


How everyday people create the most helpful things


What do Craigslist and new inventions like the remote glucose monitor Nightscout have in common? They were invented not for financial gain, but to solve a problem for their inventors. More and more, new products and new ideas come not from people developing things for sale, but from individuals creating gadgets and apps around the world for self-rewards. In his new book, “Free Innovation,” MIT Sloan Professor Eric von Hippel outlines a brave new world of invention — one that doesn’t run on intellectual property and isn’t ruled by the bottom line. 

“Free Innovation” is available as a free download from The MIT Press. A print version is available for purchase. In this new book, von Hippel explains why the pace of innovation by consumers who “give away” their innovations is accelerating and why the process of innovation isn’t just a means to an end.

Who are these people and why are they coming up with all of these new products?

My colleagues and I surveyed people in six countries via nationally-representative samples. We determined that tens of millions of people spend tens of billions of their own dollars on new designs and devices in just those six countries alone. Free innovation — never previously measured — turns out to be a massive phenomenon.

Why do free innovators do what they do?

The survey research shows that they innovate for self-rewards rather than being motivated by potential payments from others. For example, they are rewarded by solving their own problems. That is a self-reward. Or they are motivated by the fun and learning they gain from the process — again forms of self-reward.

Because they are self-rewarded, they do not need to sell what they create to “pay them back” for their innovative investments. And so, 90 percent of these millions of innovators simply give their innovations away. Only 10 percent decide to be entrepreneurs, protect their designs by intellectual property rights, and seek to profit from sales.

Take for example the South African carpenter Richard van As who lost part of his hand in an accident. He reached out to the artist Ivan Owen and together they created a 3-D-printed artificial hand that opens and grips as he bends his wrist. The device was radically simpler and cheaper than commercial devices — a few tens of dollars instead of thousands of dollars per unit. They could have patented and sold the design, but instead they converted it to be printable on a personal 3-D printer and shared it on the internet for free. Now there’s a worldwide network of volunteers called Enabling the Future that downloads the design and prints hands for free for local kids who need them.

From the cave to the garage, humans have always tinkered to solve their own problems. Why is free innovation taking off now?

It’s certainly getting stronger because of computerization and the internet. The internet makes communication between people easier, and design tools like [computer-aided design] make it cheaper to do at home and easier to coordinate with others. The free innovation paradigm has grown up. It’s the biggest challenge to the long-established pattern of commercial innovation since the Industrial Revolution. Still, as I write in chapter seven of my new book, producers can also benefit from free innovation by commercializing designs free innovators have created. As a form of giving back, they can also give free innovators tools to support their work. A good example is the computer game producer Valve. That firm offers free innovators tools and support via a website for consumer innovators called Steam Workshop.

Where is free innovation headed?

Free innovation is now being studied intensively by academics around the world. My colleagues and I have formed the Open and User Innovation Society to support this effort. Collectively, hundreds of academics are working to make free innovation and the “free innovation paradigm” better understood as a major complement to the standard producer innovation paradigm. Both are important and useful, and as we learn how to make them function better together, human creativity, business, and social welfare will all be benefitted.

For more info Zach Church Editorial & Digital Media Director (617) 324-0804