Von Hippel, Cultural Innovation, and Measuring Cool

In my spare time, I’ve recently been reading through the work of Eric Von Hippel, prof and all-around awesome guy at MIT. Hippel’s work centers mostly on innovation theory, and he has focused much of his research in demonstrating the suprisingly large role that at-home DIY amateur (or at least non-explicitly R&D) inventors play in technological development, what he calls lead users. He’s come up with a number of great examples to support this thesis.

Roughly, his research leads him to suggest that the path of innovation looks something like this.

At the far left of the curve are the lead users, who are defined by the fact that they –

  1. face needs that will be general in a marketplace – but face them months or years before the bulk of that marketplace encounters them, and
  2. are positioned to benefit significantly by obtaining a solution to those needs.

As time goes on and these needs are expereinced by a greater proportion of the market, the innovation gets picked up by larger manufacturers, who commercialize, standardize, and make the product widely available in a largely static way. (See Hippel Ch. 2) As these needs are satisfied, new needs arise, or other market shifts occur, the number of users perceiving a need for a particular innovation declines (the right-side of the curve)
What’s interesting I think, is that this conceptual model is applicable not only to technical innovation, but cultural innovation as well.

If we can say that the aim of a new cultural movement emerges from an need to express something, then cultural innovation — the arrival of new styles, “scenes,” or genres — represent new frames or tools that allow for that expression.

Or taken even more generally, if you disagree with an “expression” interpretation of culture, we can say that culture is (broadly speaking) the product generated by a community. Cultural innovation, then, is the sythesis of a new community where it was not previously recognized. (i.e. the effect of Silent Spring in creating an enviromentalist community or the sociological impact of hiphop)

Many of the same features described by Hippel occur in the arena of culture. Styles tend to emerge as the result of a small community of “lead users” that form a new community of expression. That style is co-opted, commecialized, and made more standardized until it is adopted by the general public. Rock has its latter-day Paul McCartney, Jazz its Kenny G, and Goth Punk its Hot Topic.

What’s unique about cultural innovation, quite unlike the technical kind that Hippel describes, is that these innovations decline in cultural currency to all users as its use expands. In the “expression” mode of thought, the usefulness of an innovation as a frame for communicating tends to decline if it is watered down and broadly applied. Similarly, in a “community” type understanding, the vast expansion of use comes with an attendant widening of that community, perhaps to groups and individuals that do not share the same values as the original. This creates a natural counterforce that creates cyclical patterns of trendiness.

Note that this is not, in fact, an elitist sentiment. Indeed, the dilution of one cultural innovation may lead to really positive application and innovation elsewhere. (e.g. Nerdcore may have diluted hiphop, though it was useful both to the end of expression and the formation of a community for a different group of people) Though undoubtedly, the original community of rappers might perceive this as a dilution.

This lends itself to a neat little descriptor of cool. The far-left curve of the lead user is merely a subculture, the far-right merely diluted, uncool. The cool space falls between this lead user zone and the peak. Things are cool when the need for it as a mode of expression or as a uniter of communities is continually increasing. As it continues to expand past the peak, a trend becomes what we might term popular — that is, widely accepted, and still needed as a cultural touchpoint, though no longer useful in defining a culture or useful for expression.

This explains why cool itself is so temporary, since its progress is anchored by the progress of time and the changing needs of its enviroment.

In the very least, this descriptor provides some useful way of putting together an index that could quantitatively measure where certain cultural innovations “stand” on the Hippel curve, which would be pretty sweet. I’m thinking a desktop app, that uses the Google database to query how popular certain things are. It’d be cool because you’d be able to get a rough sense of what’s up and what’s down based on it, potentially with an eye on making predictions about where a culture is going to go.



2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    […] 6, 2007 · Filed under at&t, Tim, Social Theory, Advertising, Music So given all that, what about indie […]

  2. 2

    mako said,

    I’ve love to talk to you a bit more about this. It seems pretty likely that I’m going to be spending at least part of my time next year working with von Hippel. The idea is to do research of some sort — I haven’t really decided what I want to do yet.

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