Pro-Ams as a Force for Social and Commercial Innovation

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Charles Leadbeater and Paul Miller:


"Amateurs have a long track record of innovation, especially in emerging fields which are too young for there to be an organised and professional body of knowledge or too marginal to warrant the attention of companies or universities.

Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men, a history of the inventions that paved the way for the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is a story of a group of Pro-Am inventors, scientists and manufacturers – Mathew Boulton, Josiah Wedgewood, Erasmus Darwin, James Watt, Joseph Priestley and others. Most were non-conformists and freethinkers, who pursued scientific questions out of curiosity. That tradition of Pro-Am experimentation is alive and well today among open source and hacker communities on the internet or the Homebrew Computer Club, which spawned Steve Jobs’s and Steve Wozniak’s ideas for a personal computer. Another example of how Pro-Ams lead innovation to create entirely new industries is windsurfing.



Pro-Ams play three distinct roles in innovation.

First, Pro-Ams can be disruptive innovators. Disruptive innovation changes the way an industry operates by creating new ways of doing business, often by making products and services much cheaper or by creating entirely new products. Disruptive innovation often starts in marginal, experimental markets rather than mainstream mass markets. Embryonic markets are often too small to sustain traditional approaches to R & D. That is where Pro-Ams come in. Dedicated amateurs pursue new ideas even when it appears there is no money to be made. That is why they are a persistent source for disruptive innovations, such as Rap music.

Second, Pro-Ams lead innovation in use. The more technologically radical the innovation the more difficult it is to say in advance what the innovation is for. It may be impossible for the ‘authors’ of the innovation to predict exactly how it will be used. It is down to the consumers to work out what a new technology is really for. That requires innovation in use or the co-creation of value between consumers and producers. Mastering a computer game used to be an individualistic activity undertaken by boys in the dark of their bedrooms. Now it’s a mass team sport that depends on intense collaboration. By 2000, most strategy-based computer games had built-in tools to allow players to create and customise the content and action. Knowledge about the game is constantly developing among a sprawling army of Pro-Am players, linked by websites and chat rooms. A game’s official release is the moment when the initiative passes from the in-house developers to the community of Pro-Am users. There is a sound commercial logic behind this encouragement of Pro-Am innovation. Open, mass innovation allows many innovations to continue in parallel once a game has been released among a distributed community. If a game sells one million copies and just one per cent of the players are Pro-Am developers, that creates an R & D team of 10,000 people working on further developments. Their contributions make the game more interesting and that in turn extends the game’s life, constantly refreshing it.

Third, Pro-Ams are vital to service innovation. All services are delivered to a script, which directs the parts played by the actors involved. Most service innovation comes from producers and users simultaneously adopting a new script, playing out new and complementary roles in the story. That explains why the ‘script’ for ordering a meal in a formal restaurant – replete with waiters, tips, menus – is so different from the ‘script’ for ordering in a self-service restaurant, when the consumer does much of the basic labour involved. Pro-Am consumers play a critically important role in devising these new scripts, because they are the leading, more informed and assertive consumers.

Harnessing Pro-Am service innovators will be vital to the future of public services, especially in health, social care and education. As an example take diabetes. Surveys show that most people prefer to have health issues dealt with at home rather than having to visit a hospital or surgery. Surveys of diabetes sufferers also show that those who are more able to self-manage their condition are less likely to suffer health crises than those with little know-how who rely on specialist help. One of the most effective ways to improve the lives of diabetes sufferers is to equip them better to self-manage their condition, to write their own scripts on how they want their condition treated. The more Pro-Am skills there are distributed across an economy the greater the innovation and labour market flexibility."


"Pro-Ams play an increasingly important role in business innovation.

This challenges the traditional assumptions of public policy that innovation starts in R & D labs, where backroom boys and boffins come up with bright ideas that they pass down a pipeline to waiting consumers. Traditional innovation policies subsidise R & D and accelerate the transmission of ideas down the pipeline and into the market. Pro-Ams are helping to turn this closed model on its head. In mobile phones, media, computer games and software, ideas are flowing back up the pipeline from avid users to the technology producers. Pro-Ams should play a much larger role in innovation policy. Lead users should play a larger role in foresight exercises to chart the future course of innovation, and policies to deregulate markets should also open up spaces for Pro-Am innovations. Pro-Am communities are the new R & D labs of the digital economy." (

More Information

The report, the Pro-Am Revolution