In Praise of Individual Innovators

From the editor: Reflections on the role — and contribution — of individual innovators.

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“What would need to change around here if we really believed that consumers are actually developing, prototyping, use-testing and market-testing some of what will be our most important and novel new products — without us?”

That’s a provocative question for businesses that you’ll find in “The Age of the Consumer-Innovator,” an article in this issue by Eric von Hippel, Susumu Ogawa and Jeroen P.J. de Jong. Von Hippel, Ogawa and de Jong describe new research showing the surprising extent to which consumers invest their own time and money in creating and modifying products to better suit their needs. And in the Internet age, it’s easier than ever for individuals to work together and share their inventions, so these authors argue that smart businesses should figure out how to work with consumer-innovators.

Some managers may find aspects of von Hippel, Ogawa and de Jong’s vision a bit unnerving. (Few people, after all, really like to think that innovating in their marketplace is occurring without them.) But I think it’s also a profoundly hopeful vision — one that recognizes the immense variety and extent of human creativity. In an era when the world faces many urgent and difficult problems, there’s something reassuring about the ingenuity and passion that individuals bring to creating new and better solutions to needs they have or spot in the world around them.

For example, one evening in August while I was busy editing “The Age of the Consumer-Innovator,” I received an e-mail from an acquaintance seeking insights about business as he tries to market renewable-energy products he has developed. I haven’t yet had a chance to meet with my acquaintance to learn more about his inventions (although I plan to), so I haven’t developed a view on his chances for success. But there was something about the passion the inventor expressed for applying his skills to the problem of climate change that was inspiring to me. Reading von Hippel, Ogawa and de Jong’s article that same night reminded me that there are no doubt countless other individual innovators out there trying to create new products and services that they think will help address issues such as climate change. Let’s hope that many of them succeed.

Martha E.

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