Harnessing user-led innovation, NESTA, Plough Place, 16/07/08

It’s really great that user-led innovation is being taken more seriously these days and I was really pleased when I got an invite to NESTA to hear some presentations and discussion on the subject. This is an area that I’ll be following closely as it’ll be interesting to see how policy develops around this stuff.

There are some companies who have been on the ball for a couple of years, who embrace and engage with their user communities and of course there are still a few stalwarts who feel this kind of innovation (from their customers who pay their fat cat wages) is their enemy and must be stamped out at all costs *coughmusicindustrycough* but they’ll just have to adapt or die. If you’ve taken the time to find this post you’ll know all this already, so I’ll just get on with the details of the talks…

Soooo…. NESTA commissioned a piece of research from CENTRIM (Centre for Research in Innovation Management) University of Brighton investigating the power of user-led innovation.  They held a morning of talks and discussion about their findings at Plough Place and also invited some representatives of companies and online communities to talk about their experiences.

Here are my notes, they’re quite basic, but I was balancing my pink Eee PC precariously on my lap and it did get a bit warm so I was fidgeting all the way through…

First up was Steve Flowers of CENTRIM, University of Brighton, he talked about the CENTRIM research into user-led innovation.

Project overview:
to look into policy and community, they examined areas such as:
· video/film/mashups
· games
· social networks
· music

What do we know about user lead innovation (example relationships)?
· user + manufacturer
· user = manufacturer
· users vs manufacturer – conflict – music industry
· online communities are very important – they’ve changed the rules of innovation in a fundamental way

User-led innovation ecosystem includes:
· feedback & support
· content creation
· new uses
· unexpected developments in technology
· minor mods
· major mods –subculture of modding, fundamental changes to architecture of systems
· new products

How are companies embracing user lead innovation?
· commercialising user ideas
· building products around user content
· toolkits, components & architecture
· recruiting innovative users
· engaging with user communities

Who is doing it? (Listing companies from the image of slide below for peeps with screenreaders or don’t want to screw their eyes up to read logos)
· Sony
· Lego
· Bebo
· Ecademy
· Facebook
· Microsoft
· Sibelius
· fxpansion
· Swappits
· backstage
· Lindenlab

What are the policy issues?
· the rules of innovation have changed
· but we have a linear model hangover
user-led innovation remains hidden
policy indifference or hostility
regulation can act against user led innovation

For example companies like Lego had to change their policy as modding was illegal to begin with

How should government support user led innovation?
· re-frame regulation to promote user led innovation – copyright rethink
· establish a user innovation forum
· ‘extend’ R&D tax credits


Justin Baron – Sibelius

This company make musical notation software and was started by Ben & Jonathan Finn in 1993. They now have over 100 employees. Users range from composers to schools, the software is used all over the world and there are several different language versions.

Sibelius uses manuscript plug-in technology. There over 300 plug-ins  and over 90% are created by people external to the company, they range from the cute to quite complex. They have a very active online community and users who create software retain the IP.

‘our community come up with exciting and unexpected ideas’ – Justin Baron

It was cool to hear some more about Sibelius, having met and heard Jeremy Silver (Avid Vice President and Managing Directo) talk at Thinking Digital in May.


Jonathan Attwood – Swapitshop

‘We reward kids for doing stuff!’

Swapitshop is basically a kids & teens community –  45% girls 55% boys. If you’re a kid it’s difficult to get a bank account, so Swapitshop gives you a bank account and some credits online. You gain credits in return for certain tasks such as buying and selling or doing things. You can trade them, for example you can trade a CD for credits. Brands also sponsor tasks, they pay kids for ideas and product placement.

There are some smart kids who are already Swapitshop credit millionaires. Some of them have done it by importing, bartering & reselling.

Kids are also starting up fan sites & youtube ads to promote what they’re doing on Swapitshop.

Swapitshop are now paying kids for their advice. For example they took some kids to a supermarket for some marketing insight and the kids made the manager get on the florr and go round on his knees to get the kids perspective.

Apparently they’re working with the BBC (sorry, I don’t know what on) and also various companies doing R&D.

An example of something they’re presently doing is ‘Ad builder’ – getting communities to create their own banner ads.

Also, Virtual business partner – allows kids to set up their own shops & also to sell their expertise to businesses

In schools they’re using gold stars to exchange for Swapitshop credits for participating in tasks like healthy eating and going to finance advice lessons.

Swapitshop makes money as a business by charging the companies who use the data/information that kids generate.


Pete Lemon- GBA gaming community

GBA is a community led site – for Gameboy, DS and other handhelds
It has over 10,000 forum members and over 500 active developers, musicians and designers in the community who create all sorts of things such as games, graphics, sound tools and emulators for handheld devices. It started off with mostly a mostly male audience, but more females are joining.

The site/community allows much creativity & collaboration between designers, coders and musicians and a lack of commerciality breeds lots of very interesting products which would not have come out of commercial sector.
They have competitions – one ended up with a cartridge of 10 games being created for Gameboy 1500 copies were made and they sold out within 2 days.

GBA has helped users get jobs, use data on the site for their degrees, the major companies use site for ideas and to spread information
There are no IP issues – Nintendo are happy for them to be there because they promote their products and help people into the industry.
Their sponsors range from gaming sites to hardware sellers.


Discussion between panel and audience – in the main the audience made comments:

* Difficult to put a price / monetary value on some user-led companies –will be interesting in the future to see how these develop and the legal that comes out of this.

* Is there still a gender bias with user-led innovation? Does the ‘glass ceiling’ for women still exist? I did note that the panel and the chair were all men – would have been good to have a women on the panel 😉

* One member of the audience said that it would be interesting to see how government legislation and attitudes would develop if we stopped calling it ‘user innovation’ and started calling it ‘people innovation’.

* NESTA are going to try to create spaces for users/services/front line services in the public sector.

* A product designer commented that she was worried that people were doing a lot of the stuff that she gets paid for, for free – should she retrain?!

* Central St Martins product design lecturer worked on a AHRC project with a cycling community to work on and look at why bikes were being stolen and how they could re design products to help the community.

* The internet has changed how people meet like minded people – this has changed the dynamic and acceleraation of how people meet.

* Pervasiveness around ICT has impacted on our lives.

* People create stuff for free because its fun, people enjoy it and lots of people look at it.

* How do you create sustainable business models –

free sharing communities / with areas who wants to make money clash? How do we turn hobbiests into companies?

* Fail to take notice of online communities at your peril! – story told about Kryptonite allegedly not listening to the biking community who reported that their locks could be opened with bic pen lids. I say allegedly because I looked this up and there seems to be few disagreements online about how events unfolded – I wasn’t there so can’t report one way or t’other!


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