Dynamist Blog

Consumer Innovation

I've been reading Neil Gershenfeld's new book Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop--From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication. It's an interesting complement to Eric Von Hippel's Democratizing Innovation, which I wrote about in my April Times column. While Von Hippel looks at how and why users generate so many innovations, Gershenfeld explores the possibilities of low-cost, (relatively) easy-to-use fabrication technologies.

Gershenfeld's experience with students and workshops from Ghana to South Boston confirms von Hippel's central point: In many cases, people want things they can't currently get and, given the tools to make them, will create new inventions. "The killer app for personal fabrication is fulfilling individual desires rather than meeting mass-market needs," he writes. (For more info, see his website here.) I admire Gershenfeld's enthusiasm, but he overstates the case for making stuff yourself. I already have the equipment and (rusty) skills to fabricate my own skirts, and by making them myself I could get exactly the right fabric and fit. But I don't. Making stuff yourself can be fun and satisfying, but it can also be time-consuming and frustrating. The theoretical question is who has the scarce knowledge. User innovation taps unique or unarticulated desires, but specialization allows expertise and gains from trade.

After writing the column on Von Hippel's work, I found coverage of user innovation popping up everywhere. Fortune published this piece on the "do-it-yourself economy," leading with a stay-at-home dad who's inventing an MP3 player that looks like a Pez dispenser. The neologism-crazy trend spotters at Trendwatching.com posted a nice roundup of examples.

Meanwhile, O'Reilly has launched a fat new magazine called MAKE, devoted to the goal "that all of us can learn to become makers, just as we might learn to cook or use woodworking tools." MediaBistro featured a profile of the new magazine. An excerpt:

It goes without saying that nearly every review of MAKE references the long-cancelled ABC show, MacGyver, and the magazine/mook itself is unable to resist the impulse. (In Michael Rattner's review of Victorinox's Swiss Army Cybertool, he writes, "I've used it to open my PowerBook for a memory upgrade, gain access to a stubborn remote control's battery compartment, slice through an untold number of letters and packages, remove a tiny ingrown hair and to escape certain death by drowning using the can opener as a hook to unlock the door to a room that was being filled with water. [Oh wait, never mind, that was a MacGyver re-run.]) And it was precisely that appeal that made me buy the magazine last week while browsing the shelves at a Barnes & Noble. I'm not that technically oriented, but I had enough fun taking apart major appliances as a kid to appreciate the idea of doing it usefully and purposefully as an adult. (Besides, you never know when you'll be forced to evade a couple of guys with AK-47s using only a box of matches, a stick of gum, and some aluminium foil.)

But the beauty of MAKE isn't so much the practicality of it, but the way it translates what is nominally a subculture for a general audience, in much the same way Wired (wittingly or un-) did as it adapted. While many of the projects therein require a modicum of technical knowledge, culturally, MAKE is about everyday hacking — which is of increasingly greater interest to a general audience as consumers place higher premiums on customization. Music mash-ups, TiVo programming, made-to-order Nikes are symptoms of larger demand for a wide of consumer choices.

On a more radical note, The Speculist interviews Adrian Bowyer, whose working on a self-reproducing rapid-prototyping machine.

And for all you would-be inventors, Jeff Taylor points me to this contest, noting that "SOMEONE has to take $125K off of MS and ISDA........"

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