Democratizing Innovation vs. Crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing, as I noted in CrowdSourcing (Purchasing Innovation VI) and Cambrian House: Crowdsourced Software, which can be defined as the process of delegating various tasks for which you do not have the manpower or expertise from internal production to external entities or affiliations of networked persons with the expertise, access to, or raw capabilities that you require, allows you to accelerate product development lifecycles and innovation by taking advantage of the masses.

Democratizing Innovation, the title of a book by Eric von Hippel, is when users develop solutions and manufacturers base their new product ideas on the examination of user-developed solutions as well as their needs. It is the intersection of the emergent-solution and emergent-market model where individuals innovate for themselves (with steadily increasing quality and steadily decreasing cost using steadily improving tools that are becoming cheap and ubiquitous) and manufacturers learn to rely on users for innovation prototyping and the collaborative filtering efforts of user communities as the basis of their marketing research.

The concept of Democratizing Innovation is discussed in an interview between Eric von Hippel and Tom Austin of Gartner, that, unlike most of Gartner’s offerings, is free for anyone who wishes to read it. The interview, which is quite lengthy, discusses various aspects of Democratizing Innovation, and includes references to open source and user-centered innovation (which are fundamental components of crowdsourcing), but the most interesting aspect is the reference to a concept of an “intellectual commons”.

Eric von Hippel states that he believes that many fields are on the way to building an intellectual commons, which is increasingly becoming a viable substitute for intellectual property protected by patents and copyright and that, over time, information protected by intellectual property law as a monopoly will only survive in increasingly isolated corners of the economy since intellectual commons will eventually dominate. Interesting proposition. I hope it happens … which should not be a surprise since I am all for the abolishment of software patents as well as much stricter controls on the patent process. (For example, I would argue that a patent should not be granted unless a panel of experts in the field agreed that the invention contained within was indeed innovative. Considering Genrich Altshuller, the founder of TRIZ, found that, on average, only 20% of patents have somewhat inventive solutions, only 4% of patents contain a new concept and 1% a revolutionary discovery, it should be obvious that at least 75% of patents granted should never have been granted.)

But I digress. We’re talking about crowdsourcing and democratizing innovation – two concepts that look eerily similar – despite the fact that the Gartner interview does not even mention crowdsourcing. After all, both are based on user-centered innovation, and the emergent properties of a social collective which will slowly redefine productivity and innovation in this modern era.

We’ve left the world of Marshall McLuhan where The Medium is the Message and have entered the world of William Gibson where it’s impossible to move, to live, to operate at any level without leaving traces, bits, seemingly meaningless fragments of personal information. But that can be a good thing. We can leave more than traces and meaningful fragments of non-personal information as well. Others can do the same. These fragments can be combined into pieces, pieces into images, and images into collages that can be used as the foundation for new innovations. The future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet.