[Tech] Economist: The rise of the creative consumer

http://www.economist.com/business/displayStory.cfm?story_id=3749354


How does innovation happen? The familiar story involves boffins in academic institutes and R&D labs. But lately, corporate practice has begun to challenge this old-fashioned notion. Open-source software development is already well-known. Less so is the fact that Bell, an American bicycle-helmet maker, has collected hundreds of ideas for new products from its customers, and is putting several of them into production. Or that Electronic Arts (EA), a maker of computer games, ships programming tools to its customers, posts their modifications online and works their creations into new games. And so on. Not only is the customer king: now he is market-research head, R&D chief and product-development manager, too.

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BMW's efforts to harness the creativity of its customers began two years ago, says Joerg Reimann, the firm's head of marketing innovation management, when it posted a toolkit on its website. This toolkit let BMW's customers develop ideas showing how the firm could take advantage of advances in telematics and in-car online services. From the 1,000 customers who used the toolkit, BMW chose 15 and invited them to meet its engineers in Munich. Some of their ideas (which remain under wraps for now) have since reached the prototype stage, says BMW. “They were so happy to be invited by us, and that our technical experts were interested in their ideas,” says Mr Reimann. “They didn't want any money.” [emphasis mine] BMW is now broadening its customer-innovation efforts.

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At the heart of most thinking about innovation is the belief that people expect to be paid for their creative work: hence the need to protect and reward the creation of intellectual property. One really exciting thing about user-led innovation is that customers seem willing to donate their creativity freely, says Mr Von Hippel. This may be because it is their only practical option: patents are costly to get and often provide only weak protection. Some people may value the enhanced reputation and network effects of freely revealing their work more than any money they could make by patenting it. Either way, some firms are starting to believe that there really is such a thing as a free lunch.


What's interesting is that I know of several websites where people can list good ideas (for free!):

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