Sloan Prof Discusses New Free Innovation Paradigm for Entrepreneurship

Free Innovation

MIT Sloan recently published an article about Free Innovation, a new book from Professor Eric von Hippel that examines how innovation is increasingly coming from “individuals creating gadgets and apps around the world for self-rewards” and less from profit-driven entrepreneurs.

In his book, which is available through the usual online and brick-and-mortar vendors, as well as a free download, Hippel breaks down how this new paradigm is the “biggest challenge to the long-established pattern of commercial innovation since the Industrial Revolution.”

Based on a multinational study Hippel and his colleagues from the Open and User Innovation Society conducted, inventors and innovators are more often than not motivated by self-reward—“the fun and learning they gain from the process”—rather than potential payment. “Because they are self-rewarded, they do not need to sell what they create to “pay them back” for their innovative investments. And so, 90 percent of these millions of innovators simply give their innovations away.”

Eric von Hippel

Hippel believes it’s possible for free innovators and commercial designers to work together in ways that are mutually beneficial. “Producers can also benefit from free innovation by commercializing designs free innovators have created. As a form of giving back, they can also give free innovators tools to support their work, like the tools and support computer game producer Valve offers through its Steam Workshop.”

As a key example of the massive global social impact that free innovation can have, Hippel points to a radically simple and inexpensive 3D-printed artificial hand co-designed by South African artist Ivan Owen and carpenter Richard van As, who lost part of his hand in an accident. “They could have patented and sold the design, but instead they converted it to be printable on a personal 3-D printer and shared it on the internet for free. Now there’s a worldwide network of volunteers called Enabling the Future that downloads the design and prints hands for free for local kids who need them.”

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