Innovation on demand
Britain has a long history of developing new technologies, including many inventions which have been developed by lay practitioners rather than corporate experts. The last 20-30 years have seen a speeding up in the rate of user-led innovation.
"The internet has accelerated and magnified activity," said Steve Flowers from the Centre for Research in Innovation Management (CENTRIM). "Innovators can get in touch with like-minded people easily. There have always been communities of inventors, but they can now link up globally. This has had a huge impact."
It is only recently that the government has recognised this with its Innovation Nation white paper published in early 2008. Flowers' research has been looking at how policy can help encourage innovation which is led by users or consumers. Much of industry has been transformed by user-led innovation but often in different ways, said Flowers.
Social networking and the IT industry rely on user-led innovation, but areas like music have had more problems. "The music industry tried to keep tight control, but users are no longer just simple consumers and now innovate in both the creation and distribution of music. File sharing is not necessarily a good thing," said Flowers. "But the industry cannot ignore it. The ability of consumers to modify products and influence how things get adopted is now huge."
For other industries, like financial services, user-led innovation is not encouraged as it is highly regulated. Each industry may need a particular set of policies around user-led innovation, said Flowers. What works for one industry will not work for all.
Today's innovators share some general characteristics: they tend to set aside copyright concerns, be passionate about their subject and be open to the free exchange of information.
Business, on the other hand, often seeks to control copyright and keep its ideas under wraps. Flowers adds that people have said that user-led innovation has caused the democratisation of innovation, but innovation is often driven by a small group of highly skilled individuals. Similarly, the world of user-led innovation research is relatively small, but this is growing all the time as it has more impact on industry and policy.
"We are at the stage where we are asking quite hard questions and are only beginning to collect the data to provide strong answers," said Flowers. To address this, Flowers and colleagues at the University of Sussex are continuing to develop their research in this area and will also be publishing a book on user-led innovation in the near future.
Steve Flowers on innovation
Find out more
Visit the Centre for Research in Innovation Management (CENTRIM) website.