Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

Who Are the Real Innovators?

Here’s a quote from the NYT:  “Since the Australian economist Joseph A. Schumpeter published ‘The Theory of Economic Development’ in 1934, economists and governments have assumed that the industrial and business sectors are where ideas for products originate.”  

Okay, we all think we know this to be true:  small business drives the economy and big business spends the big bucks on R&D.  Together they’re the power behind all that innovation and entrepreneurial drive that so defines our economic and political system.  That’s us: a nation of doers and innovators, powered by our industrial and business savvy.  Right?  

Well, maybe it’s really something else.  Which leads us to the recent findings of the innovation researcher to my left, Eric A. von Hippel.  In a study funded by the British government, he and his research posse found this: “the amount of money individual consumers spent making and improving products was more than twice as large as the amount spent by all British firms combined on product research and development over a three-year period.”   

Well that’s certainly a different take on it.  So it’s us, the people, that are the real innovators.  For example, according to von Hippel’s research, 3/4 of the innovations in scientific instruments come from users.  And that leaves the small and large companies to be the marketers and manufacturers of all this innovation.  

I like that.  We, the people, make it happen.  

This kind of blows the old mythology out of the water.  So, it’s individuals who are the real doers and innovators.  They/we come up with the cool ideas and new ways of doing.  Take the Internet, for example.  You can immediately think of new ideas and innovations there.  

And this leads to another way of innovating I’d like to talk about, and that is people working together to make something happen.  Again, the Internet is the place.  And a particular site I found fascinating when I first wrote about it is still out there innovating.  HitREcord is the brainchild of RegularJOE, AKA Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  Hit the Red Button on the site to join up and you can help “create and develop art collaboratively.”

It’s really a cool idea.  One person writes.  Another does the music.  Another animates something based on the writing.  And then there’s the remixes and mashups and reworking.

That’s the basic concept, really, that anyone can redo anyone else’s work on the site, theoretically making it better, of course.  And, an interesting kicker is, if RegularJOE decides, given his connections within the entertainment industry, that he can make a buck with it, then he’ll share the profits 50-50.   

They have some interesting videos on their site.  A short, poetic piece is “Train Now Leaving.”  It feels like the work of one person but is actually a collaboration of several.  And an example of a simple idea well executed. 

Maybe this concept of collaborative creation is the future.  Maybe it’s too idealistic to have legs.  I can see it either way. 

So what about this innovation thing?  One of the drivers is that we’re so individualistic, so oriented towards the belief that one person can make a difference.  And innovation is so demanding, I think it happens when someone believes they have the ability/power/insight to bring into the world something new.   It’s also something that requires the freedom to examine and  explore, confidence and vision.  And I’d say it’s nice to have a little luck, too.  


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  1. Seredipity is something else.

    This very moment, I’m preparing to interview the author a new book titled “The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream.”

    I think he’d agree that innovations often come from people, not corporations.

    But who would have guessed before von Hippel’s study that people actually invest twice as much in innovations as corporations?

    Thanks for pointing this research out.

  2. Thanks, Bob. I feel that we often forget what makes this country so amazing. As a nation we have a great spirit and vitality, which too often gets buried in the froth of everyday worries and struggles.


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