Friday, March 11, 2005

A Social Basis for Innovation

Arts Journal points us today to an online article from the Economist about companies harnessing their customers for new product ideas. Is this really new? When Scott Adam's "Dilbert" strip about corporate culture began syndication, he put his email between panels, allowing fans to send in their own experiences, creating a database of ideas that probably has years to go. And cognitive scientists have known for years that some mental tasks (say, naval navigation) are better accomplished as social activities.

LAST November, engineers in the healthcare division of General Electric unveiled something called the “LightSpeed VCT”, a scanner that can create a startlingly good three-dimensional image of a beating heart. This spring Staples, an American office-supplies retailer, will stock its shelves with a gadget called a “wordlock”, a padlock that uses words instead of numbers. In Munich, meanwhile, engineers at BMW have begun prototyping telematics (combining computing and telecoms) and online services for a new generation of luxury cars. The connection? In each case, the firm's customers have played a big part GE, BMW or the leading role (Staples) in designing the product.

How does innovation happen? The familiar story involves boffins in academic institutes and R&D labs. But lately, corporate practice has begun to challenge this old-fashioned notion. Open-source software development is already well-known. Less so is the fact that Bell, an American bicycle-helmet maker, has collected hundreds of ideas for new products from its customers, and is putting several of them into production. Or that Electronic Arts, a maker of computer games, ships programming tools to its customers, posts their modifications online and works their creations into new games. And so on. Not only is the customer king: now he is market-research head, chief and product-development manager, too.

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