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Horizontal user innovation networks

by henrycopeland
Tuesday, December 2nd, 2003

Steve Lohr’s recent NYT overview of “markets as conversations” failed to mention Cluetrain, but did mention an interesting document that I pursued further this morning.

MIT professor Eric von Hippel researches the ways that technology users may form de facto peer networks to innovate new functionalities and invent new dimensions of commerce and design. Von Hippel surveys fields ranging from pipe-hanging to windsurfing to open-source-software to mountain-biking and examines the conditions under which users rather than traditional manufacturers can lead the way via horizontal collaboration.

User innovation networks can function entirely independently of manufacturers when (1) at least some users have sufficient incentive to innovate, (2) at least some users have an incentive to voluntarily reveal their innovations, and (3) diffusion of innovations by users is low cost and can compete with commercial production and distribution. When only the first two conditions hold, a pattern of user innovation and trial and improvement will occur within user networks, followed by commercial manufacture and distribution of innovations that prove to be of general interest.

These user innovation networks have a great advantage over the manufacturer-centric innovation development systems that have been the mainstay of commerce for hundreds of years: they enable each using entity, whether an individual or a corporation, to develop exactly what it wants rather than being restricted to available marketplace choices or relying on a specific manufacturer to act as its (often very imperfect) agent. Moreover, individual users do not have to develop everything they need on their own: they can benefit from innovations developed by others and freely shared within and beyond the user network.

Cool stuff.

He’ll need to add blogging to his list of subjects to study. This whole view of horizontal user innovation networks becomes particularly interesting (and recursive) when you start to think about users innovating in the creation of technology that drives the networking/innovation process itself. Think about it this way: pic

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