Real (user-generated) innovation

One of the things that I love about my iPhone is that is a fully fledged 16GB iPod as well as a multimedia device and phone.

Every time I go for a drive (or catch a tram) I am now entertained and/or challenged by podcasts that I subscribe to (they automatically get downloaded to my phone).

My current passion is TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design). I have about 100 lectures, each about 20 minutes long, sitting on my phone waiting to be watched. (When I drive I don’t watch, just attach my phone to my seatbelt near my ear and listen).

TED is the baby of Chris Anderson who launched magazines such as Business 2.0, and websites such as the games portal

He is not the Chris Anderson who is the editor of Wired Magazine and author of The Long Tail. Which is just as well because if there were that much talent in one person it’s likely that they would be driven mad by their genius or at least have a serious drinking tab.

TED is about ideas that need to be shared in technology, entertainment and design. For those without multimedia players or iPods, you can watch their videos on their website as well.

This Thursday (19 February 2009) at the Churchill Club we are running a conversation on sustainable innovation inside SMEs, so I went to TED to look for inspiration on questions and came across a fascinating piece by Charles Leadbeater.

Leadbeater is a British writer and journalist who has some interesting things to say about user-generated content and innovation. Incidentally, Leadbeater also helped Helen Fielding write the columns that she turned into the book then film known as Bridget Jones’s Diary.

Anyway, Leadbeater was banging on about the rise of the “amateur professional” – which is how technology has allowed amateurs to produce content similar to what professionals were producing a decade before. Think blogs and YouTube. But also think robotics, amateur rocketry, astronomy and variety of other areas.

The thrust of Leadbeater’s speech that caught my attention was this was consumer-generated innovation, not supplier innovation. The assertion is that innovation controlled by organisations will always be incremental and low risk.

The premise is that the company innovates and the passive consumers then consume. Which leads to products such as this from Sony.

However when consumers are allowed to innovate, they can create breakthrough solutions that generate brand new businesses (for example, the rise of MP3 as a format) or major new categories (60% of music sold in the US is apparently rap music, which couldn’t get backing by a label when it started). This is because consumers aren’t locked into making profits, and don’t risk their career if solutions don’t work.

So how do you work with consumers to tap into innovations? Google, Flickr and YouTube found a solution – create a platform for user-generated content. Lego found a solution; create a community that can use your products in ways you never considered then share the results.

Anyone can create the framework for a social network almost intangibly for free. Recently I have been looking at Ning as a tool. Ning is a platform for creating social networks. They make their money by placing Google ads on free sites, or charging you for value add services such as using your own domain name.

Ning offers the following features. You can :

  • Pick your own configurable design.
  • Have an infinite number of members.
  • Have a member activity news feed (eg Brendan posted a new picture).
  • Have members post interesting comments or web links.
  • Display RSS (news) feeds from other websites.
  • Have photo galleries.
  • Have discussion forums.
  • Upload videos.
  • Have realtime chat.
  • Integrate your Ning social network with other websites such as Facebook.
  • Have sub-groups within your group.
  • Have member blogs.
  • Create events and publish them to your network.

If this isn’t useful to someone wanting to experiement with social networking, then in the words of my father “I’ll go heave”. Tapping into consumer generated innovation will create a really interesting aspect to Thursday’s Conversation at the Club.



Brendan Lewis is a serial technology entrepreneur having founded : Ideas Lighting, Carradale Media, Edion, Verve IT, The Churchill Club, Flinders Pacific and L2i Technology Advisory. He has set up businesses for others in Romania, Indonesia and Vietnam. Qualified in IT and Accounting, he has also spent time running an Advertising agency and as a Cavalry Officer with the Australian Army Reserve.

To read more Brendan Lewis blogs, click here.



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