Sunday, July 29, 2007

In a Highly Complex World, Innovation From the Top Down

Top down innovation ...

"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, elite innovation model that doesn’t 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 P. 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 elites.

“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.

To be sure, experts like Eric von Hippel, a management 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 J. Wilhelm, who earned his doctorate at M.I.T., where he was inspired by Mr. 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’s Web-savvy consumers “expect innovations to meet their needs,” Mr. Wilhelm says. “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 elites no longer sit at the top of the innovation food chain?"    (Continued via New York Times)    [Usability Resources]

Instructables - Usability, User Interface Design

Instructables

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