Kit-Driven Innovation

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See the article by Michael Schrage on 'Kitonomic Innovation'[1].


The Industrial Revolution began with kits. In 1763, Glasgow University’s scale model Newcomen steam engine broke, so the physics professor asked the school’s resident mechanic to fix it. A talented instrument maker, this university employee didn’t just get the machine working again, he figured out a clever way to improve the design by turning a surgical syringe into a piston and condenser. That Scottish mechanic was James Watt, and he partnered with Birmingham, England’s Matthew Boulton to commercialize the design. But rather than producing finished steam engines for the coal mines and breweries that used steam power, they sold engineering “kits” — with extensive instructions — that required on-site assembly. Boulton & Watt made a killing, and transformed their age.

This rough template has foreshadowed technological revolution ever since. Whether in radio, auto, aircraft, electronics, or personal computers and the internet, communities of kit-building talented amateurs — not credentialed elites — have disproportionately influenced early innovation. The proliferation of cheap kits better signals a market sector ripe for revolution than the presence of expensive “cutting-edge” products.

In other words, “kitonomic” innovation doesn’t follow the money; the money follows the kits. Although government research funding and industrial investment undeniably matter, they shouldn’t eclipse the importance of bottom-up mechanisms for human capital formation, such as kits.

Talented amateurs don’t just build kits; kits help build talented amateurs. And healthy innovation cultures — and successful innovation economies — need the human capital that their talent embodies. Kits are integral, indispensable, and invaluable ingredients for new value creation." (



"The ultimate kits — meta kits — emerge when people develop their kit building blocks to work with each other. You see this with open source hardware like Arduino as well as the ongoing “appification” of software and digital services. Popular open standards and protocols subvert traditional business models, giving rise to global DIY R&D that enjoys far more brainpower than any company department, no many how many hot-shot engineers and designers it has hired. Perhaps this is why Microsoft — despite intense internal political battles — decided to turn Kinect into a DIY kit platform.

Consequently, the most exciting mass production consumer sectors increasingly defer to Web 2.0-ified economies of mass interoperability. As serial entrepreneur Joe Kraus brilliantly observed, “The 20th-century mass-production world was about dozens of markets of millions of people. The 21st century is all about millions of markets of dozens of people.”

Yes, it is. Remarkable, isn’t it, that kit mindsets and methodologies appear critical to both? The modularity, hackability, and improvisability that have made individual kits successful in the past become even more valuable when linked to higher-bandwidth swirls of wiki-ed and networked information. Higher-bandwidth and broader interactions between people facilitate higher-bandwidth and broader interoperability between kits. As tool chains and other innovation ecosystems evolve to be more kitlike, kits evolve into hardier innovation ecosystems.

And as (relatively) accessible technologies ensure the diffusion, dispersion, and development of technical knowledge and skills, the most talented of amateurs won’t just “follow the instructions.” They’ll advance well beyond them, and invent possible futures. The technologies may be new, but the patterns of human behavior are not.

Academic thought leaders from Berkeley’s Henry Chesbrough to MIT’s Eric von Hippel celebrate “open innovation” as a profound paradigm shift in value creation. For Chesbrough, open innovation revitalizes stale innovation processes in established enterprise. For von Hippel, greater openness promotes a “democratization of innovation” worldwide.

Toward a Strategic Kit Initiative

Following this model, IP shifts from “intellectual property” to “innovation populism”. What better instantiates open innovation than a kit, which entwines innovative components, innovative bundling, and, of course, innovative documentation and collaborative support?

But the transcendent issue is not whether open, proprietary, or “walled garden” kits represent the optimal format. It’s that — no matter what regime is chosen — kitonomics appears to play an increasingly vital role.

If kits can influence and even drive sustainable innovation, then commercial and not-for-profit organizations alike should be asking what their SKIs (strategic kit initiatives) should look like.

Already we’ve begun to see these concerns materialize in NGOs and philanthropies in emerging markets (see “‘Design for Hack’ in Medicine”). A growing number of development experts such as NYU’s Bill Easterly believe customizable kits represent a better aid format than finished products. (Victor Papanek’s classic Design for the Real World — more than E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful manifesto — best articulated this “appropriate technology” design emphasis.)

The smart money — are you listening, Gates Foundation? — would be on kits as mission-critical ingredients for dramatically stimulating quality-of-life and standard-of-living innovations in the world’s poorer populations. After all, history indicates that kits are how emerging markets emerge.

And now, desktop fabrication and manufacturing literally bring another material dimension to what kits can be. The ability to integrate and interoperate digitally designed atoms and bits, to share physical objects remotely with download-and-print ease, can’t help but transform design — and by extension, everything else.

What happens when the same hobbyist/homebrew subculture that spawned a Gates, a Jobs, and a Michael Dell grows around kit-built 3D printers in Brazil’s favelas and India’s public housing? How might microentrepreneurial design collaborations in Guangzhou yield high-impact kits inexpensive enough to seed talent and innovation throughout the world?

No meaningful answers to those questions yet exist. But we can be sure that the future of innovation is inextricably linked to the future of kits." (


  1. Kits and Revolutions: An MIT economist’s lesson in Kitonomics 101. pp 8-10. 2012. Available here and here