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Trend of the Day: Kit-Driven Innovation

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
30th January 2013


Talented amateurs don’t just build kits; kits help build talented amateurs. And healthy innovation cultures — and successful innovation economies — need the human capital that their talent embodies. Kits are integral, indispensable, and invaluable ingredients for new value creation.

See the full article by Michael Schrage on ‘Kitonomic Innovation’:

“The Industrial Revolution began with kits. In 1763, Glasgow University’s scale model Newcomen steam engine broke, so the physics professor asked the school’s resident mechanic to fix it. A talented instrument maker, this university employee didn’t just get the machine working again, he figured out a clever way to improve the design by turning a surgical syringe into a piston and condenser. That Scottish mechanic was James Watt, and he partnered with Birmingham, England’s Matthew Boulton to commercialize the design. But rather than producing finished steam engines for the coal mines and breweries that used steam power, they sold engineering “kits” — with extensive instructions — that required on-site assembly. Boulton & Watt made a killing, and transformed their age.

This rough template has foreshadowed technological revolution ever since. Whether in radio, auto, aircraft, electronics, or personal computers and the internet, communities of kit-building talented amateurs — not credentialed elites — have disproportionately influenced early innovation. The proliferation of cheap kits better signals a market sector ripe for revolution than the presence of expensive “cutting-edge” products.

In other words, “kitonomic” innovation doesn’t follow the money; the money follows the kits. Although government research funding and industrial investment undeniably matter, they shouldn’t eclipse the importance of bottom-up mechanisms for human capital formation, such as kits.

Talented amateurs don’t just build kits; kits help build talented amateurs. And healthy innovation cultures — and successful innovation economies — need the human capital that their talent embodies. Kits are integral, indispensable, and invaluable ingredients for new value creation.

The article ends with the following questions:

“Now, desktop fabrication and manufacturing literally bring another material dimension to what kits can be. The ability to integrate and interoperate digitally designed atoms and bits, to share physical objects remotely with download-and-print ease, can’t help but transform design — and by extension, everything else. What happens when the same hobbyist/homebrew subculture that spawned a Gates, a Jobs, and a Michael Dell grows around kit-built 3D printers in Brazil’s favelas and India’s public housing? How might microentrepreneurial design collaborations in Guangzhou yield high-impact kits inexpensive enough to seed talent and innovation throughout the world? No meaningful answers to those questions yet exist. But we can be sure that the future of innovation is inextricably linked to the future of kits.”

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