Instructables in the New York Times - In a Highly Complex World, Innovation From the Top Down
In a Highly Complex World, Innovation From the Top Down
by G. PASCAL ZACHARY
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?