In recent years, some of the best products and businesses have been created when local concerns are met with sophisticated solutions. There seems to be a magic formula developing: when city-based designers with an aptitude for technology can identify a unique concern of their neighbors and set out to develop a tailored solution, a beautiful invention is delivered. These advancements eventually spread, and are useful for society at large. For example, prototypes for low-cost DIY geiger counters appeared in Japan only weeks after the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster. Similar sensors made their way into start-up Lapka’s product: a cord of sensors that plug into your iPhone for measuring radiation, humidity, temperature, and other conditions.
Technology development has become democratized and localized. No longer are tech devices the domain of corporate R&D houses inside Apple, Samsung, or Nokia. In fact, most of what we’ve seen in the past few years in New York City are city-based startups developing and selling their own hardware devices. Since these entrepreneurs and their development teams are embedded in the context and user-base they’re designing for, the process is quite focused, lean, and iterative.
What has given rise to this new form of R&D? In the past 10 years, there has been an increase in access to low-cost and easy-to-use prototyping tools for hardware development, including open-source electronics platform Arduino. These tools allow designers and technologists to prototype smart products with just a $30 circuit board and some code uploaded from a laptop. Designers can now move beyond ergonomics and manufacturing strategies to developing functional features in their projects. Consider health devices, sensor platforms, traffic counters, and GPS-enabled bike sharing. Coupled with the movement for the ‘quantified-self’ (think Jawbone UP Bracelet, Withings bathroom scale, and FitBit), putting inexpensive data sensing and logging capabilities into products is the new status quo. With these advances, the transition from prototype to market-ready product has been made easier.
After development, the product may be launched on crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter or Indiegogo, where the product’s viability and features are vetted with real users before they even go into production. If the campaigns are successful and funding is reached, online sales of the factory-produced products can be hosted quickly to deliver to relevant customers in neighborhoods (all over the world sometimes)—all without ever touching a store shelf. Other times, the product may be sought after by corporations who see market potential in their existing sales channels. In such a business exchange, the corporation has a potential to save thousands of dollars in R&D and market research costs as the city-based entrepreneur has likely done all of that. In fact these are requisite activities if the product is to be boot-strapped into a small business.
Speed of development is an important consideration to round this discussion. With the U.S. patent system moving from First-To-Invent to First-To-File on March 16, 2013, the pace of IP development will be given even more priority. In the new patent climate, more small technology inventors might find themselves going head-to-head with corporations in existing and emerging technology device markets.
You’ll now find technology development labs inside product design companies from New York to London—previously unheard of locations for technology hardware product development and design. Aside from the company I founded, Tomorrow Lab, other examples of these labs include Smart Design’s Interaction Lab, and Berg London. These small labs mean that the development process is focused on creating the ‘minimum viable product’, wrapped in a beautiful design, wrapped in a well-branded story.
In an already competitive environment, the democratization and localization of new product development has increased the stakes between corporate offices and community-driven technology labs. Whatever the result, the end-user can only benefit from products addressing their unique concerns. Hopefully this push will increase the demand for manufacturing to return to the US, and allow financial security for start-ups, companies and investors alike.