NPR logo America's 12 Million Amateur Innovators


America's 12 Million Amateur Innovators

Russell E Oakes, an amateur American inventor wearing his problem solving inventions. Evans/Three Lions/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Evans/Three Lions/Getty Images

Russell E Oakes, an amateur American inventor wearing his problem solving inventions.

Evans/Three Lions/Getty Images

In his latest New York Times Magazine column, Adam Davidson reports that independent inventors are creating products faster than ever, but few are succeeding at patenting and selling their work. We asked Eric Von Hippel of MIT to explain why so many Americans are inventing new products at home when the odds of commercial success are stacked against them. His response is below.

Nearly 12 million Americans create or modify products they use at home, according to our research. But the vast majority – more than 90 percent – will never get a patent on their innovations. So what motivates them?

The innovators we studied (their innovations may or may not meet the criteria for inventions) are user innovators – a very different breed than independent inventors.

User innovators are motivated to create a new product in order to use it rather than to sell it, and they are generally very successful at accomplishing what they set out to do. They are justifying their investment in inventive activities based upon the satisfaction they get from the use of their products.

For example, almost all sports equipment innovations, from mountain bikes to whitewater kayaks, are developed by participants in those sports, not by sports equipment producers. The innovating sports equipment users report working long hours and spending significant amounts of money to create and improve their techniques and their equipment. They then gain the return they expected for their investment by personally using it to improve the practice of their sport.

Consumers who innovate also generally do not protect their innovations by patents, and also freely share their innovation with their friends at no charge – what they develop often gets around. Why would they do this? They are not rivals with their friends, and the fact that their friends use their invention too is not a loss to them. In fact, they often gain pleasure and social benefits when people say,"Wow, you really developed something very cool!"

Now, it is also true that many commercial products are based upon user innovations – ranging from sports equipment developed by sports enthusiasts, to home medical care innovations developed by patients, to recipes developed by homemakers. It is also true that producers who adopt these innovations generally do so without acknowledgement or payment to innovating users.

In a way, we may regard this as unfair, and some producers are beginning to correct their practices. But, innovating users do get the returns they expected when they innovated – recall that they invested in order to benefit from using what they created, not from selling it.

User innovation among consumers is huge, and is rewarding to participants. Producers benefit from the spillovers these innovating users create. To understand the huge and growing phenomenon of such "makers," we need to change our focus from independent inventors who develop stuff to sell, to inventing and innovating consumers who develop stuff to use and, often, to share.