Whitewater Innovation

I recently had opportunity to speak about kayaking at the “MIT Innovation Lab”- which is an academic and industry think-tank and annual seminar series on how innovation happens.  Participants include researchers from companies like Google, Ford, General Mills, Siemens, and academics interested in this field from MIT, Harvard, and universities in Copenhagen and Lisbon. Eric Jackson and Corran Addison were also presenting on the evolution of paddlesport.


MIT innovation lab professor, Eric von Hippel, describes the new wave of innovation this way:  “Creating complex products with limited manufacturer involvement is a growing phenomenon! Imagine product development without manufacturers.  Today’s user innovation communities are making that idea increasingly real. Open-source software projects, among others, have led to innovation, development and consumption communities run completely by and for users.”


The central idea is that “open-source” design by users is opening entirely new possibilities in traditional manufacturing.  You perhaps have heard of examples from the computer world:  the internet browser Mozilla Firefox, Ipod Apps, Google Apps, the e-commerce platform osCommerce, and the highly successful GNU/Linux operating system.  Ford motor company’s “Sync” dashboard device is enhanced by user innovation.


This kind of "user innovation community" has a great case study in whitewater kayaking!  So whitewater boating is a hot topic of interest for researchers and economists.  My role was to show excerpts of my film, “The Call of the River,” highlighting the periods of strongest user innovation: wood and skin boats from indigenous cultures, homemade fiberglass boatbuilding of the 60’s and 70’s, and the squirt kayak to rodeo kayak evolution of the 80’s and 90’s.


Curiously, due to the expense of rotomolded plastic manufacturing, one could argue that the user innovation community in whitewater is much smaller now than 30 years ago.  But I can think of lots of innovation that still happens:  for example moves on the river still are limitless.  Communication among boaters is expanding with new internet tools and applications.   In addition, people are taking to the river in more unique ways…  standing, swimming.  What do you think will be the next frontier of kayaking user innovation?


Eric von Hippel elaborates “These user communities have an advantage over the manufacturer-centered development systems that have been the mainstay of commerce. Each using entity, whether an individual or a corporation, is able to create exactly what it wants.  It need not rely on a manufacturer to act as its agent. Individual users in a user innovation community do not have to develop everything they need on their own but can benefit from others’ freely shared innovations.”


At the recent MIT Innovation Lab, following the whitewater kayaking case study was an entirely different case study- the 3D Printer community. Imagine a printer not printing from ink, but printing from a glue gun spitting plastic in three dimensions!  You don’t need special glasses to see these.  They are actual objects, simply formed on the X, Y, AND Z axis from a machine only slightly bigger than the conventional paper printer on your desk.  Break a plastic widget that you need?  Download the design (free/open source of course) from the internet and print your replacement part!  Visit reprap.org or makerbot.com for examples.  The idea is commercially available for rapid prototyping for industry- with machines costing upward of $300,000. 


But recently, the 3D user community has lowered the cost to just over $150.  At the lab, we saw a handful of example products, including a whistle, complete with the ball rattling around inside.  These “printing” machines can even fabricate the parts to build a new 3D printer.  The field is currently dominated by some pretty nerdy/ brainy users, but one can imagine limitless possibilities once the process becomes a bit more refined. 


In a curious twist, the first 3D printer reference I ever heard was from Bill Masters- founder of Perception Kayaks.  He patented the idea back in 1987, visualizing a spit wad shooter of plastic.  This was well before computing muscle had caught up enough to make the process a reality.  So far ahead of his time, Bill was not able to commercially capture the potential of the 3D print process.  But he proved that kayakers can be formidable innovators.  What innovates in your mind?