User communities and the "Dark Energy" of open innovation

Spending on R&D in the United Kingdom is in decline. A report by the University of Sheffield stated that research and development investment in the UK is now less than 2% of GDP, mainly explained by cost reductions by firms (Jones, 2013). Yet, innovation is needed more than ever for firms to remain competitive. What can be done to redress the balance? The idea of tapping into the "dark energy" (Anderson, 2012, p. 128) (also known as "the cognitive surplus" (Shirky, 2011, pp. 9-10)) of a "community of users" to enhance a product is as old as the Whole Earth Catalog, which was first published in 1968. This method can also be used to invent new products. This paper will discuss this form of "open innovation" in three distinct contexts: first, in the creation and enhancement of Stewart Brand's "Whole Earth Catalog" between 1968 and 1971, second, by the Chinese mobile phone manufacturer Xiaomi in the development of its MIUI software, and third, in an Internet of Things design competition hosted by the electronics engineering community, element14.com, in collaboration with Texas Instruments, Cisco, and the Eclipse Foundation. Using these examples, the paper argues that the "dark energy" proffered by user communities is a key resource which can be effectively deployed as part of firms' innovation models. The paper also argues that the arrival of low cost tools such as the Raspberry Pi and the 3D printer, as well as access to so-called “hackerspaces”, means that online communities can do more than just generate software, ideas and designs, they can now produce working prototypes of physical products. The paper finally argues that using the context of design challenges can provide intensive focus and direction for innovative activity.