Innovation Blog

31.7.07

In a complex world, innovation happens from the top down: Many of the most popular new products, like the iPod, are dominated by a top-down elitist innovation model that does not allow for customization.


International Herald Tribune
In a complex world, innovation happens from the top down
By G. Pascal Zachary
Monday, July 30, 2007


 

NEW YORK: User-generated content - from Wikipedia to YouTube to open-source software - is generating waves of excitement. But the opening of innovation to wider numbers of people obscures another trend: Many of the most popular new products, like the iPod, are dominated by a top-down elitist innovation model that does not allow for customization.

"New technologies are becoming so complex that many are beyond the possibility of democracy playing a role in their development," said Thomas Hughes, a science and technology professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Consider: electronic implants into human bodies; gene-splicing as common as cosmetic surgery; computer networks mining vast databases to discern consumer preferences. All of these innovations are the result of corporate or government initiatives overseen by the elite.

"The process of innovation leaves out a huge proportion of the population," said Daniel Sarewitz, director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University.

Experts like Eric von Hippel, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argue that the proliferation of "user-generated" designs signals the "democratizing" of innovation. Armed with inexpensive digital tools and networks, ordinary people, he says, can band together to push their own innovations. They also can hijack existing technologies, taking them in directions only dimly envisioned by the original creators.

One example is an electronic community called Instructables, whose participants share methods for customizing standard products in unpredictable ways. The chief of Instructables, Eric Wilhelm, who earned his doctorate at MIT, where he was inspired by Eric von Hippel, has posted a clever means of turning a white Asics Gel-Foundation 7 running shoe into a purple model. (The $90 official version comes only in a white-black-and-blue combination.)

Today, Web-savvy consumers "expect innovations to meet their needs," Wilhelm said. "If innovation isn't tailored to them, they expect to be able to tailor it to themselves. That is a big change."

But does this really mean that the elite no longer sits at the top of the innovation food chain?

"Elites have a lot of leverage but less than they used to," says Peter Leyden, director of the New Politics Institute in San Francisco. "More people are getting their voices heard."

Leyden sees an emergent American "republic of innovation," in which growing numbers of people influence what innovations are made and when.

Skeptics, however, say that the rosy scenario is exaggerated and that user-generated innovation is merely a kind of "democracy lite," emphasizing high-end consumer products and services rather than innovations that broadly benefit society.

"Difficult questions are going unasked about who is participating in innovation and on what terms," said James Wilsdon, director of the innovation program at Demos, a policy research group in London.

In that scenario, needed innovations can be overlooked. For example, huge amounts of money are spent on improving Internet search engines or MP3 players, while scant attention is given to alternative energy sources. Battling diseases like AIDS or Alzheimer's - efforts that lobbying groups in wealthy countries help to highlight - attract legions of well-financed innovators, while big global killers, like childhood diarrhea and sleeping sickness, are virtually ignored.

Popular pressure to pursue certain innovations sometimes gets results, of course. In 2004, voters in California passed a law to provide funding to a stem-cell research institute - in a rebuke to the administration of President George W. Bush, which has banned federal funding for such research.

"This was a great example of a democratic adjudication of an innovation issue," said Sarewitz, of Arizona State. Even so, bureaucratic and legal delays have meant a slow start for the San Francisco lab, which has not yet received approval to spend any of the $3 billion in promised taxpayer funds.

For all the hoopla over the power and promise of user-generated content, consumer-directed design and other hallmarks of our new golden era of democratized innovation, one of the iconic products of our times - the iPod - can't be customized (no, I'm not counting putting on different-colored protective jackets). There is an unbroken line between Henry Ford (with his Model T) and Steve Jobs. The new iPhone similarly reflects the elite, corporate innovator's drive to find one size that fits many.

The cliché that committees can't create great ideas, or art, still seems to be true - though whether or not that is the best way to innovate remains an open question. Who knows how much longer?

G. Pascal Zachary teaches journalism at Stanford University and writes about technology and economic development.