The spirit of openness that began in the open source software movement roughly two decades ago has begun to move beyond the information technology sector. Many companies are soliciting ideas, knowledge and resources from outside their own institutions - not only from expert advisors, but also from amateur enthusiasts, customers and end-users.
Danish toy manufacturer Lego became a champion of such “open innovation” when enthusiasts began hacking its popular “Mindstorms” robot kits. Instead of retaliating, Lego set up a “Mindstorms User Panel” - made up of volunteer “lead users” - to co-create and test new toy designs. Other leading companies, including Toyota, Proctor & Gamble and Kraftfoods, have all pioneered open innovation models to enhance their businesses.
The question is: can it also create value for the world's poor people?
According to economist Henry Chesbrough at the University of California, Berkley, United States, creative knowledge is diffuse and centralised approaches to research and development are becoming obsolete.
Today our technological connectivity gives us an unprecedented opportunity to harness global creativity for products and services. These principles should apply to serve us all, not just the wealthiest.
There is some evidence that the development sector is beginning to use open and user-driven innovation models to influence product and service design.
For example, Changemakers runs “collaborative competitions” to solicit solutions to social problems, covering topics from microfinancing to affordable housing and healthcare. Participants can see each other's solutions online, adapt their own, and help others modify their approaches.
Last year's water and sanitation competition received 264 entries from 54 countries and mobilised investment in local innovation. One of the winners was Slum Networking in India, which exploits natural drainage paths to provide cheaper and better quality water, sanitation and drainage systems for slums.
Another example is InnoCentive, whose “crowdsourcing” model seeks solutions from scientists and enthusiasts worldwide to specific problems, including several focused on the technological needs of rural communities. The first was for a solar-powered flashlight that villagers can use for general indoor lighting. The non-profit company behind the idea, SunNight Solar, is now distributing the lights in rural Sub-Saharan Africa.
Spreading the word
User-generated or user-driven innovation (UDI) originates from end-users themselves. It has been around for decades (the mountain biking industry grew out of user-generated innovation).
Innovation guru Eric von Hippel of the US-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology says users are motivated to develop and modify products and services "because they can't get from the manufacturers exactly what they want".
In the world of development, UDI recognises that poor people are resourceful, innovative and often solve their own problems through their own means. But to have greater impact, UDI must be recognised and disseminated to other users.
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