September 16, 2003

Consumers: An Open Source For Open Source Innovation?

Renee Hopkins posts a very interesting conversation she had with Andy Hargadon, author of How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth About How Companies Innovate. Andy argues that using lead consumers in the development of your products is a kin to open source and innovation in the early days.

Good old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity came mostly from the "open source" nature of the early mechanical equipment used in agriculture and manufacturing. The wheels, gears, cranks, belts, pulleys, sifting, sorting, bundling, bobbing, and weaving were all right out there. If anything broke, workers in the field and factory fixed it — and if they were worth anything, improved on whatever it was that broke. James Watt "invented" the steam engine when he was asked to repair a Newcomen engine and turned it from a single-stroke to a two-stroke piston action. Much of America's rapid advances in industrialization in the 19th century came from these self-taught mechanics who moved from fixing equipment in their small towns to developing their own more radical innovations....

Is this bad? It depends on whose perspective you take. McCormick (of the reaper) and many others found that farmers and local craftsmen were knocking off their products (and improving upon them) in ways that both made it hard for them to amass fortunes, but also in ways that rapidly improved on the technologies. Patent and copyright laws protect the first to claim legal ownership, but deny the origins of their work and, as badly, forestall future improvements by others.

more on enabling lead consumers in product innovation here.

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