Kits as an Innovation Enabler (and an Indicator Species)

An excerpt from Causeit's research pilot Opening the Door for Innovation
MakerBot’s inexpensive 3D printing kit innovates in a number of ways, spawning not just colorful toys but a vibrant ecosystem—the Thingiverse—to bring together creative and practical designs from across the world.   Photo courtesy http://www.makerbot.com/

MakerBot’s inexpensive 3D printing kit innovates in a number of ways, spawning not just colorful toys but a vibrant ecosystem—the Thingiverse—to bring together creative and practical designs from across the world.  

Photo courtesy http://www.makerbot.com/

The creation of a kit—literally, as in the Maker world, or figuratively, as in the software world’s APIs and application frameworks—serves as a magnet to whatever industry offers it. Make: magazine’s Project Editor, Keith Sammons, offers why: 

  • Kits are the gateway DIY project
  • Kits teach skills
  • Handmade beats store-bought
  • Making something is more fun
  • Kits are exciting and mysterious
  • Kits are great for sharing
  • Kits open up community
  • Kits drive innovation
  • History repeats 

The creation of a kit can be as simple as assembling a literal or metaphorical parts list and a few instructions, or as complex as the work required to make an entire set of interchangeable parts.

Kits become powerful when they become interoperable

What makes kits powerful is interoperability. The more an ecosystem of kits is interoperable, the more effective it becomes at spurring further innovation. Just as an application program interface (API), software development kit (SDK) or application framework makes it possible to extend the functionality of code, kits of all sorts enable innovation not just by doing the important work of organizing, shortcutting and translating technical problems—but by creating a standard tool for people to organize around. When that organization happens, the not-so-tech-savvy visionary can encounter the technician-in-search-of-a-business-model. Alternately, the visionary can train themselves or the technician can become inspired by larger implications. 

From a business standpoint, smart companies continually rediscover the value of opening at least part of their walled gardens to broaden and diversify their ecosystems (and communities). Doing so allows ideation to occur outside their company while still positioning them near or at the center of revenue sources for the expanded ecosystem. Contrasting the Treo to the iPhone or Android requires as much discussion of developer communities and APIs as it does hardware and OS. It’s important to remember that such ecosystems don’t just occur in the most visible spaces of product development (and more recently, revenue model innovation) but even in less visible spaces like the legal and organizational structures people engage (B Corps, collectives) and the processes they use (Agile, shared ideation). 

Perhaps most importantly, these ecosystems engender community and, by convening people perhaps less likely to interact in another context, at least some degree of chaos and spontaneity. 

Ecosystems become exponentially powerful when made navigable

Kit ecosystems could be argued to most deeply effect positive social changes when made navigable—or easy to dabble in. Ecosystems which are difficult play in, like (at least for now) pharmaceuticals and space flight, remain accessible primarily to those with social and economic privilege, and thus may not benefit from rapid innovations because of the lower number of participants in their ecosystems. They also are less prone to rapid innovation because the educational, social, and regulatory barriers to entry accept only certain kinds of problem-solving and emphasize conformity.

In stark contrast, tools which have been made more navigable—due to reduction of technical complexity, cost and other barriers—show rapid, far-reaching innovations. Look at how increasing accessibility made the video ecosystem (camcorders -> digital home editing -> online video) become interoperable with the ecosystem of the web (computing and programming kits -> HTML -> social media), finally converging around services like YouTube. Examples like this illustrate the importance of open ‘kit’ ecosystems to the everyday user.

This article is an excerpt from Causeit's research pilot Opening the Door for Innovation. Read more and tell us what you think!