Is amateur innovation really new?

My colleague, Dan Hunter, and John Quiggin have a new paper out entitled “Money Ruins Everything.” The paper looks at the new platforms for amateur ‘innovation.’ Their main examples are the Internet, blogs, citizen journalism and open source software. In each case, the main providers of services are not your traditional corporates with large capital budgets. Indeed, there are many more, small scale and low capital operators working seemingly for love rather than money.

Of course, this is seen as something new. Alas, these two academics forget that for as long as we can remember, people innovating for love rather than money have been around and they are …. us. And by us, I mean we academics. Innovating for love is what we do and we have a whole set of institutions that have evolved to make that work in the modern economy (namely, the University system). This is something I discuss in my submission to the National Innovation Review. It is important and it is forgotten. Indeed, the Internet — which is the enabling general purpose technology for amateur hour — was first constructed to support academic research. Moreover, the whole argument that it is “hard to compete with free” came up when commercial science wanted access to government grants and believed that the system was not competitively neutral. So I don’t think Internet innovation is so “radical” even if it is very important.

Not surprisingly, I agree with the Hunter-Quiggin argument that innovation policy, and in particular IP policy, needs to accommodate amateur innovation by removing impediments to building on the work of others. This is, of course, critical in the scientific realm and we have for too long been imposing greater constraints on scientists (especially in this country) rather than freeing the system up so they can do what they do best, science. (This again is in my submission to the NIR). But this also as also an impediment to grass-roots innovation — something, JK Rowling is yet to learn.

3 thoughts on “Is amateur innovation really new?”

  1. It suddenly dawns on Professor Quiggin that people love to tinker around in their spare time for no love of money and just love of achievement. How extra-ordinary.

    Perhaps, Professor Quiggin should realize that we tried collaboration through coercion and that wall came down in the early 90’s. It is still regarded by most reasonable, enlightened people as a total failure.

    Alas, these two academics forget that for as long as we can remember, people innovating for love rather than money have been around and they are …. us. And by us, I mean we academics. Innovating for love is what we do and we have a whole set of institutions that have evolved to make that work in the modern economy (namely, the University system).

    So academics aren’t rewarded through salary, promotion, recognition, esteemed awards? Huh. I didn’t know that.

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  2. The evidence from Australian Universities of innovation that results in commercial products is dismal. The evidence of products out of CSIRO is better but still poor in relation to the amount of money spent. The early signs from NICTA are not all that good.

    A problem with most large institutions is that they are not set up for failure and for sharing of rewards when you go beyond tinkering. It takes perservance and risk taking of time, reputation and money to take an idea – particularly an innovative one – to a profitable saleable product. Also the only test of a commercial innovation is to create something that someone will buy and there are a lot of failures before you get products into a form that they are saleable.

    The Reward structure of large institutions tend not to encourage the next steps beyond “the idea” and playing with it and writing papers about it and getting research funding for pilot projects.

    Large institutions that are successful at commercialising innovation tend to isolate the innovators in “skunk works” or similar.

    See “The Innovators Dilemma” by Christensen to understand how difficult it is to get innovation commercialised in organisations that are built to sell. The same problems occur except exaggerated in Universities – and even worse in government departments.

    The best way to encourage the commercialisation of innovation is to get the innovators out of the environment of large institutions and into an innovation environment where small groups are supported but pressured to find saleable products and where the reward structures are geared to the sales from the results of the innovation.

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  3. “Indeed, the Internet — which is the enabling general purpose technology for amateur hour — was first constructed to support academic research.”

    Wasn’t the internet developed to ensure communication following a nuclear attack? I assumed that was to preserve defence command & control and government services, though I guess it’ll allow academics to keep on researcing too. We’re like cockroaches.

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