User-led innovation

Here is another short article that I wrote on the topic of user-led innovation. Many of my clients are asking about this topic. Because we are so far away from the industrialised countries, and because we have such huge geographical spaces to cover, we are faced by sophisticated and sometimes unreasonable demands. Therefore lead firms, lead customers, government and problems solvers are all asking for some very demanding solutions. Many of them are not waiting for new innovations to come from the markets, they are simply innovating to solve their own problems.

In recent years the focus in value chain promotion has increasingly emphasised the importance of systematic and market-based interventions. Within innovation system promotion, markets are important not only as selectors or buyers of successful innovations. Specialised users or unmet local needs could also be used as an impulse to stimulate innovation in a specific part of a value chain. The challenge here is not to ‘import’ technology or ‘solve’ a problem, but to get industry and its supporting structures to respond to this opportunity. This can often be achieved by better articulating unmet needs, or facilitating interaction between innovative producers and user groups.

Authors such as Von Hippel (2005, 1988) have over the years made a strong case for recognition of the innovations introduced by users, especially lead users. For instance, Von Hippel argues that customers (markets) often know what design criteria they have, and if a producer can capture this knowledge then new products could be created. Other authors, most notably Michael Porter, has in several publications indicated that the force of market demand not only shapes the design of products and technologies or strategies of firms (i.e. 5 Forces analysis), but that it could affect industry structure (i.e. the Diamond of Competitiveness). In his work Porter also emphasises the role of sophisticated or demanding customers in the innovativeness of firms.

Lead users may also provide unique opportunities for firms to innovate by customising or combining existing elements of technologies to respond to the needs of a potential customer group. For instance, many medical devices originate from the US or Europe. But surgeons and operating theatre staff working in distant locations may have unique functional requirements for these instruments, and if approached or observed in their working environments may provide important clues or insights on how instruments can be customised to improve their functionality. While firms in developing countries may be far from large markets, they are often close to specialised or niche users that may then create opportunities for innovators.

The risk of an emphasis on user-led innovation is that path dependence may occur and that blindness to rival technologies may result in a marketplace being disrupted by a rival technology. Path dependence occurs when producers respond to the demands of a certain kind of customer through investment choices that do not allow the producer to switch to a different technology or market. These customers may in turn be exposed to other market forces or technological change processes that may affect their continued demand for a given technology. The risk of the strong governance of strong buyers in the chain may then lead to a tunnel view that does not consider the upgrading potentials and requirements of the whole innovation system in the sector or region, but a too-narrow perspective on companies and their need to upgrade according to the demands of the main buyers and final customers[1]. The insights as well as interventions may be too narrow and may not lead to more proactive knowledge loops but to a reactive orientation that does not encourage new ways of doing things in the system.

Experienced value chain practitioners will be able to identify the opportunities and the risks of working with lead users as sources of innovation, as in value chains lead customers often emerge who can be used to better position certain actors in a chain. Although this usually works to the benefit of certain kinds of chain actors, it could also be argued that it deepens the dependence on specific kinds of customers (resulting in path dependence).


VON HIPPEL, E. (1988) The sources of innovation, New York, NY, Oxford University Press.

VON HIPPEL, E. (2005) Democratizing innovation, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.

[1] For instance, the IDS has published several papers on this and related topics which can be found at

Published by

Shawn Cunningham

I am passionate about how organisations and institutions change in developing and transitioning countries. I essentially work between organisations, communities, industries and experts.

0 thoughts on “User-led innovation”

  1. Thanks Shawn for bringing this lead user discussion together with the value chain questions we are dealing with. It encourages a search process to innovate outside the “value chain box thinking” many development practitioners are trapped in!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.