Eric von Hippel
|Born||August 27, 1941|
|Alma mater||Harvard |
|Known for||User innovation |
Lead user theory
|Institutions||Massachusetts Institute of Technology|
|Doctoral advisor||Dwight Baumann |
Edward B. Roberts
|Doctoral students||Dietmar Harhoff |
Benjamin Mako Hill
Eric von Hippel (born August 27, 1941) is an American economist and a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, specializing in the nature and economics of distributed and open innovation. He is best known for his work in developing the concept of user innovation - that end-users, rather than manufacturers, are responsible for a large amount of innovation. In order to describe this phenomenon, in 1986 he introduced the term lead user. Hippel's work has applications in business strategy and free/open source software (FOSS), and he is one of the most highly cited social scientists writing on FOSS.
Hippel is a member of the Advisory Board of Patient Innovation (https://patient-innovation.com), a nonprofit, international, multilingual, free venue for patients and caregivers of any disease to share their innovations.
Eric von Hippel grew up in suburban Weston, MA with his parents, three brothers, and one sister. In his early years, Eric attended public school within the town, but then moved on to the Cambridge School of Weston - a private progressive school - for 8th grade, as well as his later years. Even as a young child, outside of the classroom, one of Eric's favorite pastimes was to try to create and invent new things. Much of his inspiration came from his father, Arthur Robert von Hippel, who was also a professor at MIT.
For his undergraduate degree, Eric von Hippel attended Harvard College. In an interview with Eric, he stated that he chose Harvard over MIT for the opportunity to pursue Liberal Arts. His decision to major in Economics came after he explored courses in Biology and History, and found that neither was particularly the right fit for him. After pursuing several inventions post undergraduate, Eric returned to school for his Masters in Mechanical Engineering at MIT. From there, he went on to start his own company, worked at management consultant McKinsey and Co., and eventually studied at Carnegie Mellon University for his Ph.D. in Innovation.
User innovation occurs when individuals or firms that actually use a product or service develop what they need for themselves. This is in contrast to producer innovation, where firms develop products for sale to users. Eric von Hippel was one of the first to explore this phenomenon in depth. He found that innovation by users differed from innovation by producers in a number of important ways. For example, products developed and sold by producers are typically intended to profitably serve the average needs of a wide range of people. In contrast, users develop or modify products to fit their own needs very precisely. von Hippel coined the term "lead users" to describe innovating users with needs that are ahead of the general market. Lead users are a very important source of innovative progress because they often act earlier than producers do to develop new types of products and applications. This is the case because individual users, who innovate only for themselves, need not concern themselves with whether there is or will be a profitable market for what they are developing. In contrast, producers must wait for evidence that there is a general and profitable need to be served before they can justify investing in a new type of innovation. Often, an important component of the evidence they need comes from observing whether lead user-developed innovations are copied and adopted by others. If they are, it is an indication that there may be an emerging general market that a producer can profitably serve. 
User innovation can be seen across a wide range of products, from home cleaning equipment, to medical devices. In the field of scientific instruments, Hippel's research has even found that user innovation is a dominant influence. User innovation extends not only to tangible products but also to services. Hippel found that eighty-five percent of individuals self-provided themselves with accounting and banking processes before banks offered this service. More recently, with Pedro Oliveira and colleagues studied the role of patients of chronic diseases, and their caregivers, in creating new solutions to help them cope with their health conditions. They administered a survey to 500 rare disease patients/caregivers and found that 40 individuals (8% of the sample) reported solutions that they personally find valuable, and that are also evaluated as novel by expert medical evaluators. If anything like this fraction of innovators holds for the overall population of hundreds of millions of people world-wide estimated to be afflicted by rare diseases, patients and their caregivers may be a tremendous potential resource to improve management and care for many who are similarly afflicted.
An extension of user innovations is the idea of lead users. These are the individuals who first feel the need for a product or service and create it for themselves. Lead user identification is an essential method used by companies to identify the newest innovations in their product areas giving them crucial insight on the needs of their users.
On Eric von Hippel's website, it is stated that innovation toolkits are used to organize and support information that is shared amongst various users and producers of projects. In one of his papers entitled "Perspective: User toolkits for innovation", Hippel describes how user toolkits can be used to help manufacturers and companies determine the users' need-related aspects of products and services. The users are provided with "user toolkits for innovation", to help the manufacturer outsource tasks that would normally take much time and effort within the company. One of the first areas that user toolkits have been used was in the design and manufacturing of custom integrated circuits. In this field it was critical that manufacturers understood user needs because it could result in months of delays costing the company thousands of dollars. LSI Logic produced a software design tool that its customers could use to design circuits themselves. This move helped LSI grow to be one of the major players in the custom IC market and competitors were soon moving in the same direction.
"Toolkits for user innovation are coordinated sets of "user-friendly" design tools that enable users to develop new product innovations for themselves. The toolkits are not general purpose. Rather, they are specific to the design challenges of a specific field or sub field, such as integrated circuit design or software product design."
Toolkits should have the following features:
Sticky information is information that is expensive to obtain, transmit, and employ in a new location compared to where it originated. "We define the stickiness of a given unit of information in a given instance as the incremental expenditure required to transfer that unit of information to a specified locus in a form usable by a given information seeker. When this cost is low, information stickiness is low; when it is high, stickiness is high" (Eric von Hippel, 1994). Eric von Hippel has worked to define how sticky information influences innovation and how to overcome stickiness when trying to develop a new technology. Sticky information is often encountered when a manufacturers would like to know about how current users feel about their needs and if their needs are being met or not by current product lines. However this information would be difficult to acquire for the manufacturer, though it would be tremendously helpful in their pursuit of product innovation.
Information can be sticky for a number of reasons. Much information that humans have is tacit, and therefore is difficult to communicate when sharing information. Additionally, some technical information is composed of a very large number of parts. Sometimes it is difficult to communicate all of these especially when some operating procedures or techniques are so routine, a regular practitioner may forget to include such details.
The stickiness of a particular type of information can have influences on how advances are made in the field. For example, if a particular company holds much of the expertise and knowledge for a particular technology it will likely be difficult for another company to make advancements that originate from the original technology. Innovations are more likely to occur in the original company. This can also occur in a geographic manner. Local information can also be sticky and innovations that help a particular area with a special problem are likely to come from that area as well.
Researchers have not started quantifying user innovation until recently. It is important that researchers are able to measure innovation and gather statistics so that policymakers can see the impact of user innovation on modern day technologies. Research has shown that many of the innovative products produced by manufacturers were ideas stemmed off from "lead users." Eric von Hippel has written several papers regarding "Measurements of Innovation" and "Innovation Indicators." In one of his papers, he discusses his work with Fred Gault to survey 1,219 Canadian manufacturing plants to determine the prevalence of user innovation. They were able to determine that "About 20% of the user-innovators surveyed reported transferring their innovations to other users and/or equipment suppliers - and the majority of these at least sometimes did so at no charge to recipients." These types of innovation indicators will help the government and other researchers to see the impact of users on innovation.
Eric von Hippel has focused on the following major areas of innovation strategies in his research:
Task partitioning refers to innovation projects that are partitioned into smaller tasks. Hippel proposes that "problem-solving inter-dependence among tasks can be predicted in many projects and can then be managed by strategies involving (1) adjustment of the task specifications and/or (2) reduction of the barriers to problem-solving interaction across selected or all task boundaries."
Hippel calls attention to the improvement of innovation processes with great detail. He feels that the processes call for more scrutiny and that in turn "their improvement can significantly affect the kinds of research problems that can be addressed, the efficiency and speed with which R&D can be performed, and the competitive positions of firms employing them."
In his published work, Hippel considers it critical for market researchers to look for lead users, "users who are on the leading edge of each identified trend in terms of related new product and process and who expect to obtain a relatively high net benefit from solutions to those needs." Pyramiding is a search process based upon the view that people with a strong interest in a topic or field tend to know people more expert than themselves. von Hippel states that it can sometimes be hard to identify lead users or the next CEO of any given company and pyramiding can assist in this process.
Even as a child, Eric von Hippel was innovative. As he has written, "(when you're a child) if you don't like what you have you make it yourself", referring to the skateboards and scooters of past generations. Children designed and produced these products for themselves, because they were not available to them otherwise. Hippel became very interested in this phenomenon and how it worked, which guided his path to where he is today. Hippel looks to the work of Nathan Rosenberg of Stanford University, whose research looks at the economics of technological change, and the economic role of science, as well as economic history and development. Professor Richard Nelson of Columbia University, who focuses on the processes of long-run economic change, with particular emphasis on technological advances. As well as Professor Ann Carter of Brandeis who specializes in the fields of changing specialization of businesses and of workers, economics of information, technical change, and technology transfer. Hippel also sees Dr. Nikolaus Franke of the Vienna University of Economics and Business as a great influence in the field of product innovation. Franke heads an institute on lead user innovation methods and also focuses on market research.
In an interview with Eric von Hippel, he stated that his favorite aspects of his job were research work and teaching, and specifically working with doctoral students. His own favorite teacher was a high school biology teacher who showed him amazing new things in a new light. He has said his favorite form of research is to develop and test new hypotheses based upon first-hand observation of newly emerging patterns of innovation practice.
In this leisure time, Hippel enjoys talking to people and spending time with his children. His wife Jessie is an editor of scholarly books and journal articles and also a tennis player. His daughter Christiana received her ScD from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health in 2018. She is currently a Post-Doc at U.C. Berkeley School of Public Health and is studying health-related user innovations. His son Eric James is attending Emerson College in Media Studies. The family has a cockatiel named Merlin. When Eric von Hippel's daughter Christiana was young, he often made up cat-related bedtime stories because cats were her favorite animal. When she was fourteen and they were traveling, they wrote these stories down and called them "Christiana in Catlandia."
Hippel hopes to measure how many users innovate and what types of people do this type of work. He would like to show that most innovation is still user innovation. He finds it interesting that in the United Kingdom, some 8% (3-4 million people) of consumers modify the products they use. He has also noted that hospitals have the right to develop and use ideas, as long as they do not sell them, and he would like to persuade the institutional review board to approve development in hospital use. In this way, doctors would do innovation first, and then companies could harness the benefits of such innovation. He has stressed that the number of consumers modifying products and thereby innovating outweighs the number of people doing this in companies.