Instructables in the New York Times - In a Highly Complex World, Innovation From the Top Down

Instructables, and my Purple Shoes got a nice mention in the New York Times here.

In a Highly Complex World, Innovation From the Top Down

USER-GENERATED content - from Wikipedia to YouTube to open-source software - is generating waves of excitement. But the opening of innovation to wider numbers of people obscures another trend: many of the most popular new products, like the iPod, are dominated by a top-down, elite innovation model that doesn't allow for customization.

"New technologies are becoming so complex that many are beyond the possibility of democracy playing a role in their development," said Thomas P. Hughes, a science and technology professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Consider: Electronic implants into human bodies; gene-splicing as common as cosmetic surgery; computer networks mining vast databases to discern consumer preferences. All of these innovations are the result of corporate or government initiatives overseen by elites.

"The process of innovation leaves out a huge proportion of the population," said Daniel Sarewitz, director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University.

To be sure, experts like Eric von Hippel, a management professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argue that the proliferation of "user-generated" designs signals the "democratizing" of innovation. Armed with inexpensive digital tools and networks, ordinary people, he says, can band together to push their own innovations. They also can hijack existing technologies, taking them in directions only dimly envisioned by the original creators.

One example is an electronic community called Instructables whose participants share methods for customizing standard products in unpredictable ways. The chief of Instructables, Eric J. Wilhelm, who earned his doctorate at M.I.T., where he was inspired by Mr. von Hippel, has posted a clever means of turning a white Asics Gel-Foundation 7 running shoe into a purple model. (The $90 official version comes only in a white-black-and-blue combination.)

Today's Web-savvy consumers "expect innovations to meet their needs," Mr. Wilhelm says. "If innovation isn't tailored to them, they expect to be able to tailor it to themselves. That is a big change."

But does this really mean that elites no longer sit at the top of the innovation food chain?

"Elites have a lot of leverage but less than they used to," says Peter Leyden, director of the New Politics Institute in San Francisco. "More people are getting their voices heard." Mr. Leyden sees an emergent American "republic of innovation," where growing numbers of people influence what innovations are made and when.

Skeptics, however, say that the rosy scenario is exaggerated and that user-generated innovation is merely a kind of "democracy lite," emphasizing high-end consumer products and services rather than innovations that broadly benefit society.

"Difficult questions are going unasked about who is participating in innovation and on what terms," says James Wilsdon, director of the innovation program at Demos, a think tank in London.

In that scenario, needed innovations can be overlooked. For example, huge amounts of money are spent on improving Web search engines or MP3 players, while scant attention is given to alternative energy sources. Battling diseases like AIDS or Alzheimer's - efforts that lobbying groups in wealthy countries help highlight - attract legions of well-financed innovators, while big global killers, like childhood diarrhea and sleeping sickness, are ignored.

Popular pressure to pursue certain innovations sometimes gets results, of course. In 2004, voters in California passed a law lavishly funding a stem-cell research institute - in a rebuke to the Bush administration, which has banned federal funding for such research. "This was a great example of a democratic adjudication of an innovation issue," Mr. Sarewitz of Arizona State said. Even so, bureaucratic and legal delays have meant a slow start for the San Francisco lab, which has not yet received approval to spend any of the $3 billion in promised taxpayer funds.

The California example suggests that the balance between expert leadership and mass influence is hard to achieve. The underlying complexity of many innovations demands an ever-rising technological literacy from the public, and yet such an outcome "is a dream that will not likely come to pass," insists Mr. Hughes, a visiting professor at M.I.T.

For all the hoopla over the power and promise of user-generated content, consumer-directed design and other hallmarks of our new golden era of democratized innovation, one of the iconic products of our times - the iPod - can't be customized (no, I'm not counting putting on different-colored protective jackets). There is an unbroken line between Henry Ford (with his Model T) and Steve Jobs. The new iPhone similarly reflects the elite, corporate innovator's drive to find one size that fits many.

The cliche that committees can't create great ideas, or art, still seems to be true - though whether or not that is the best way to innovate remains an open question. Who knows how much longer?

Picture of Instructables in the New York Times - In a Highly Complex World, Innovation From the Top Down
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coonass9 years ago
I have to take issue with the author's contention that what we do here in Instructables is relatively unimportant, while a US$3 billion boondoggle concerning human embryonic stem cells (passed more as a political stunt than a serious scientific initiative) is held up as "more important." (Despite the fact that our solutions nearly always perform as advertised, while the California stem cell lab is STILL vaporware - and that pluripotent human embryonic stem cell work in general still has yet to accomplish the cure of a single human ailment or provide ONE real-life medical advance). I know, I know, there is no such bad thing as bad publicity, but the author of this piece was really reaching for something bad to say to counterbalance his praise of Instructables. Besides, most Instructables make use of material that would otherwise wind up in the global trash stream - older computers, bits and pieces of plumbing, wiring, batteries. I think the correct way to look at Instructables is not to focus on the arguably trivial projects but on the projects that create massive technological power - computer-directed laser cutters and such - from objects that might otherwise be discarded. Maybe the massive potential of Instructables would be more apparent to people like the author of the NYT article above if the writer had had some background in engineering or science and could recognize the sorts of things that could be done in the developing world with stuff in the trash stream due to our users' ingenuity. Keep up the good work, Eric. I also agree that the concept and technique database would be a great idea. Be a full-time job for somebody, though, because the concept amounts to a library of technology. There needs first to be a cataloging system to allow search of the database by would-be users.
bowakowa10 years ago
A concept and technique database is a great, great, great idea. Has anyone started the new forum?
ewilhelm (author)  bowakowa10 years ago
The OLPC Group has the beginnings of this idea.
bowakowa ewilhelm10 years ago
muchas gracias
I think you should start a new topic for this if you want to talk about it.
And a whole new group. This is an excellent idea. Some Instructables have been panned in the past for being "too simple", or "too basic", but I recently discovered that it is possible to get through almost your entire education in the US without being taught physics (which includes basic circuits, forces, energy efficiency etc), so there will be somebody, somewhere, who wants desperately to build a basic BEAM robot, but has never seen a capacitor.

I've been playing with an idea I call immortal hardcopy which would go right along with Fundamentals.
It's a little odd that the Model T is directly connected to the iPod here. I thought that the Model T's were easily modifiable and that many people would use the engine to create power for other purposes. Mass standardization can create a great environment for mass customization as well. The aftermarket business for cars is huge because there are enough cars out there that a mod is a viable thing to sell. When people do hack the iPod it gets attention. Anybody hear about a cool Zune hack lately?
royalestel10 years ago
Hmm, so we should perhaps have a set of tutorial instructables to lead the reader through from ignorance, to building their own robot, say? That would make a great contest, like the burning questions one. Anyone listening?
Kiteman10 years ago
Brennn1010 years ago
Congratulations again guys! Hopefully our site will be the next YouTube.
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