Who’s using who?

I haven’t posted in a while as I’ve been away so please bear with me as I get my blogging skates back on.

User-led innovation is possibly one of the hottest topics in innovation circles at the moment (to the extent that these things can conform to geometric shapes that is!). Nesta has been fortunate to host 2 of the leading people in this field in the last year, Eric Von Hippel  and Karim Lakhani. Karim has a great case study of the T-shirt maker Threadless, who has a very active community of customers/designers/users who create new t-shirt designs, vote on the best ones, and then produce the best ones. And one of my favourite anecdotes from Eric is around the self injection of insulin. Once upon a time, as a diabetic, you had to go to a doctor every day to be injected with insulin. This was so in convenient to one ‘user’ that he trained to become a medical doctor for 7 years so that he could inject himself. Hence, self injection of insulin was borne.

I recently became aware of interesting CRC report by Darren Sharp & Mandy Salomon available here  hich investigates the major drivers of user-led innovation and shows how user-led practices generate business and social value through a major case study of the virtual world Second Life. This case study shows how in virtual worlds innovation and play occurs without paying a fee, seeking permission or adhering to set [cultural or institutional] paths which engenders ‘entrepreneurial optimism’ which in itself is a driver of innovation.

It seems even the Government and policy makers are interested with the 12th word in the Exec Summary of DIUS’s new Innovation Nation White Paper being ‘users’. Also, this morning we had David Cameron, the leader of the opposition Conservative Party, speaking at Nesta talking of innovation in the post-bureaucratic age and championing the open source software development, collaborative innovation, and the role of citizens or users in innovation.

A common mis-conception is that users will somehow innovate for or with larger institutions, however I think the fact is that users first and foremost innovate for themselves, however there is scope and rationale for larger institutions to tap into their ‘top 1%’ – i.e. the fans of their brand/product or service to co-create value for both. There are still many issues yet to be resolved.

Given all of this excitement and activity I was surprised to hear Eric Von Hippel proudly describe himself as a ‘former inventor, gone meta’, by which what I think he means is a sole innovator who now studies the subject. In the UK, we think of the inventor as slightly eccentric and bothersome and yet are they making a come back via the guise of the user?

Nesta is also experimenting in this space developing user-led innovation pilots in a diverse range of different fields ranging from Mental Health Services, to a pilot programme we are developing with Virgin Atlantic. As users rise in prominence and importance, and the tools become democratised, we need the business models and culture that taps into the innovations, wherever they arise.


  1. I believe the whole question of why users innovate at all in this context – what motivates them – is of vital importance to the future health of the economy. So-called user led innovation is oftern just a process of better research, based on observation. The next big step will be the development of a viable business model that can include users (or is run by them) so that users and corporates can share in any rewards. For example I have just signed up to http://kluster.com/ Anyone out there got any other examples?

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