Not so long ago, most technological innovation happened in well-funded corporate and university research labs because new technology was expensive and time-consuming. It required specialized knowledge and costly equipment for building custom components. Innovation was a secretive process involving research and proprietary intellectual property. It took a long time to prove the feasibility of a new idea, and then there was the expense of bringing it to market. Typically, large corporations and government-funded university research programs were the only ones that could focus enormous resources to solve challenging technical problems. Those organizations often became inflexible and bureaucratic, with siloed functions that made them slow to respond to opportunity or demand.
Corporations and universities continue to play a critical role in developing and bringing new technologies to market, but the process of innovation is changing. New technology enables easy idea sharing while providing development tools and components that are accessible to almost anyone. This opens the process and lowers the investment threshold required to begin developing ideas into products, which speeds innovation, and that creates new opportunities for more innovation.
On the technical side, key enablers for open innvoation include tools such as:
But open innovation also has a social aspect, enabled by the internet and new forums for idea sharing. These social aspects include the maker movement, different collaboration forums, new business models such as crowdsourced development and funding, and hardware acceleration specifically designed to support the new breed of entrepreneurial engineer. All these tools and resources give makers and creators access to more brains, with more people working to solve problems.
The desire to innovate is innate. A big driver behind the modern maker and creator movement is this desire to solve problems, coupled with easier access to the necessary resources and technology needed to do it. That is effectively flattening the innovation process by giving people tools to develop ideas on their own. This trend is key to the changing innovation process, but the creator must still overcome barriers. For example, the barrier to creating and building a product isn’t as great as it once was. In fact, that has become relatively easy. What remains difficult for the creator is scaling production and scaling market reach. It is still extremely expensive to scale up tooling, provision for assembly, and acquire all the necessary materials and components. But, that’s only half the problem. For a product to be successful, customers must know about it, and there has to be a way to get products to customers. These challenges are helping redefine the role that corporations and universities play in this new age of open innovation.
In many ways, the maker movement is forcing companies to be more agile in their approach to product acquisition and development. Many companies are more willing to partner with maker entities, be they individuals or large platforms like Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Some corporations are taking on a hardware accelerator role, especially for product ideas that relate to their core business activities. This approach becomes another path for creators to further develop their ideas. Recognizing this role, many creators think strategically about how they can take advantage of support from corporations. Some structure the development of their product ideas to solve a legitimate problem, but they actually approach it in such a way that the technology could be acquired for commercialization by a larger brand. Some companies track self-started ideas in a way that benefits all parties. For example, independent maker teams may end up being hired by a large corporation interested in their talent. The corporation not only acts as an innovation incubator but can also become a talent incubator where groups of like-minded and skilled individuals come together. That fuels the ability for larger companies to innovate.
More open approaches to innovation will continue to change how innovation happens. It makes innovation more global in nature, with more ideas coming from more places solving more regional and niche market problems. It will continue to push on hierarchical corporations to change their internal cultures of innovation, which involves a continued flattening of the innovation process by recognizing that good ideas can come from anywhere and accepting that for innovation to really flourish, there needs to be a way for the best ideas to surface regardless of where they come from. Open innovation with more brains at work will also affect product life cycles, especially as new innovations more quickly become commoditized technology. Every innovation becomes a stepping stone to something new.
The world faces many important and interesting problems that will benefit from technology solutions. Everybody is going to have to rally and help solve those problems. It’s difficult to do so without ideas, engineers, funding, market knowledge, and manufacturing know-how. A more open approach to innovation makes it possible to bring all those things together in a dynamic way. It’s an exciting time to be on the planet and watch that unfold.
Jeffrey L. Hutchings received a Bachelor of Science degree in computer engineering from the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT, USA. He currently serves as the Chief Product Officer with Skullcandy and is responsible for all areas of product development including product management, program management, industrial design, engineering, quality, and manufacturing. Prior to joining Skullcandy, he was a director with the CTO office of Harman International developing advanced technologies in the areas of nonlinear distortion modeling and correction, wired and wireless networking of audio, and advanced headphone and earphone development. He is an inventor on 14 patents in the areas of signal processing, networking, headphones, and hearing protection.
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