Necessity The Mother of Invention

BY Heather Greenfield
February 11, 2011

When it comes to innovation, people often think of a research lab as the setting for new inventions or perhaps more recently the college dorm room or garage. But a new study by scholars including noted technology innovation professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management Eric von Hippel finds that most innovation is happening on kitchen tables and garage workbenches.

Some areas of research and innovation were more likely to come from consumers such as scientific instruments, which von Hippel estimates as having 77 percent of innovations coming from users.

Von Hippel’s study commissioned by the British government found over three years individual consumers spent twice as much making and improving products as all British companies combined spent on research and development. He’s now been asked to do similar studies by government authorities in Finland and Portugal, but he told the New York Times U.S. authorities didn’t seem as interested.

The study debunks the notion that innovation comes from Fortune 500 companies and offers examples how some large incumbents have a history of blocking innovation, even their own, so it didn’t compete with their current  revenue streams. – like AT&T suppressing wireless initially.

Just as more are producing user-created content (UCC) online, there are now numbers to show more innovation also comes from consumers – not producers. User-created innovation (UCI) further reinforces the need for patents reform.

There are similarities between  UCI and UCC on online media sites including blogs and social media sites. Both are collaborative, democratizing trends. The democratizing force of the Internet is not just in Egypt, but in marketplaces around the world. Allowing anti-democratic leaders and anti-competitive countries to suppress this force is not a feasible long- term plan for political or economic success.

The study adds to the evidence that IP rights are just one tool of many to promote innovation and that balance is needed so innovation is not suppressed.

UCI is happening for reasons entirely un-motivated by the incentive system that we currently have.  Those doing more innovating aren’t motivated by the desire for IP rights.  They’re motivated by necessity.  The mother of invention.  In other words, people invent because they need things, and giving out government-granted monopolies to incentivize creativity that is going to happen anyway is inefficient and wasteful.

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