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Filed under: Development Development 2.0 Social innovation

Farmers in Sakarchaga district learning how to measure ground water levels, May 2010

Some of the most popular examples of user innovation come from farming

Some say that all problems in the world have already been solved and that the real challenge is to find and scale the solutions.

While this might be a slightly too optimistic version of reality (or maybe I am not optimistic enough?), there’s definitely something to it. And that something could bring about a significant change in the way we think about development.

User-led innovation

It should come as no surprise that some of us have way-above-average needs when it comes to using various products or services. In fact, some people see beyond what is currently available on the market and, what is even more important, they are actually able to satisfy their needs by creating or modifying a given product or service.

Once it happens, their innovation often spreads among their friends and peers, who start copying and using it themselves, successfully changing the way things are done.

People who bring about this change are called lead users. According to a study (pdf) done by  MIT professor Eric von Hippel - the father of user-led innovation research – eight percent of users in Great Britain have innovated a product they were using (in three years preceding the research). That’s almost five million people in Great Britain alone!

What are the results of user innovation? Think about mountain bikes, baby strollers, skateboards – all created from scratch by users. Interesting, but these are only commercial gadgets, you say? Ok, think of centre-pivot irrigation or SMS banking in Africa – user innovations that are literally changing people’s lives.

User innovation in development

Commercial viability of user innovation (as opposed to the costs of internal research and development) seems to be less and less questionable. Companies are beginning to invest in tools and methods of harnessing innovations created by users of their products and services, instead of protecting them from user modifications.

Could that also be one of the possible approaches for the development sector? Would it make sense to design some of our projects under the assumption that the solution to the problem at stake is already out there, developed by a lead user? We believe so.

These are often the people in the most dire need, who often come up with the most brilliant and at the same time inexpensive solutions. Check for example this TED Talk by Toby Shapshak about what he calls real innovation coming from Africa.

The challenge, however, is that once these lead users solve their problem, they have hardly any motivation to spread their innovation (they already achieved their goal). Thus, it’s difficult to find and scale their solutions.

That’s why we decided to launch a user innovation site for development and start gathering examples from all across the globe. And for that we need your help!

You’re invited to join us in our search for existing innovative solutions to development challenges! Let’s begin the hunt for the user innovation treasure box! Check how to do it.

Do you think some of the problems you are trying to solve could have already been successfully solved by the people most affected by it?

Have you heard about inspiring examples of user innovation solving development challenges?

Share them with other development workers!