Tuesday, October 4, 2011

What Video Games Can Teach Us About Innovation

By Evan Robertson, Project Associate. 

I profess that I, from time to time, play the occasional video game or two (for those who know me: yes, this is an understatement). I realize that it is a total, absolute waste of time, that the hours I spend playing a video game are better used thinking of solutions to our nation’s more pressing problems. It is a guilty pleasure akin to watching your favorite reality TV show that may or may not involve a beach in Jersey. Which is why I was absolutely flabbergasted when I came across a news story involving video gamers solving an important molecular biology problem that has dogged AIDS researchers. The video game called Foldit pits gamer against gamer in a task of folding proteins, scientists then use this information to predict the actual protein structure found in diseases such as HIV/AIDS, Cancer, and Alzheimer’s. While this story serves as self-vindication, it also touches on an old form of innovation which is being rediscovered.

For years I had questioned whether a local economy without strong innovation capacity (innovation-poor), could ever compete with innovation power houses such as Silicon Valley, Boston’s Route 128, or North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park. Innovation-poor economies just simply can’t compete in terms of higher education institutions, venture capital, embedded knowledge, or research dollars. It is a case of success breeding success: innovations in innovation-rich economies lead to future innovation in the same local economies. Computer programs like Foldit offer a potential avenue towards an equal innovation playing field. 

It is interesting to me that a group of gamers would choose to contribute their knowledge, skill, and time to solve a problem in which they would receive no patent, intellectual property rights (IP) or any form of financial reward. The only thing they can walk away with is the right to say: Yes, I did that. User-Led Innovation, a term coined by Eric Von Hippel, is an innovation system much akin to the system used by Foldit. Instead of patents and IP, these forms of economic gain are traded for social gain where peer recognition is highly valued. Moreover, user-led innovation (whether you call it user-led, open source, or crowdsourcing is irrelevant) doesn’t rely on huge investment in public infrastructure, vast sums of research dollars, or an army of lawyers to defend your IP. Instead, it is a process of group learning where free flowing information is critical. Identify a demand, set up an internet server, and get a group of like-minded individuals who need to develop the same product or service and you have an innovation system. 

Local economies struggling to compete in today’s innovation-led economy may look towards open innovation to jump-start ideas in their local region. However, these regions will need to approach innovation in a more creative, more collaborative way that promotes the free exchange of knowledge. Open innovation will require a re-conceptualization of what a successful innovation system means to a local economy, there may be some financial gain but don’t count on it. The initial goal is simply to get ideas flowing.