Lego User Innovations

MIT’s Eric von Hippel was the other speaker at IPRIA’s anti-IP workshop. He wasn’t so much anti-IP than highlighting what can be done without it; namely, that lots of interesting innovations come from users who have no commercial interests whatsoever.

His talk (a video version is here and AFR Boss has a transcript of a recent Australian talk) highlighted one of my favourite examples of this: the Lego user community.

So this is a Lego model. Do you know what Lego mind storms is? Anyway, what it is is a robot kit that you can actually build out of Lego parts. So some of these Lego blocks have a little CPU in it, some have sensors and so on and you can string this stuff together. Lego took ten engineers seven years to design this thing so that it was perfect – perfect. Are you paying attention? Perfect. Okay, and they sold it.

Now, three weeks later, three weeks later 900 hackers were working on it. They formed a community spontaneously. They began to modify it. They cracked the code immediately. They modified it, they improved it and in three weeks they had something that was much better, and then they began to sort of put it in the face of Lego. One of the things these things do is they follow a track around. You know, you sort of have a track of tape and it has a sensor, so it can actually follow the track of tape, and they began to show that in fact the thing they’d developed in three weeks could do it two and a half times as fast as the thing that Lego spent seven years developing and so on.

The product was very successful but the customers weren’t the ones they expected. 70 per cent of the customers were over age 18, craze among adults, Silicone Valley firms forced to ban Legos at work. Anyway, great success and Lego didn’t know what to do. They just sat there. They didn’t know what to do. Users are not supposed to do that.  

I have noted before that it is very significant how Lego (the company) has changed in its attitude toward user-innovators: Here is a write-up of that. In many respects, Lego has become a publisher of designs as well as a manufacturer of bricks with an open interface between the two.

But also significantly, the Danish government is now committing substantial funding to users who innovate. This is markedly different from Australia’s R&D tax credit that mainly encourages businesses. Lots of bricks to build with using these ideas.

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