Skip to content

The Future of How We Consume Things

November 24, 2011

We often look at innovation in terms of the new products and technologies that come to market. We don’t often think about how we consume these new offerings. But that’s what is far more important. Our lives are shaped by how we interact with the “things” or “stuff” we use every day, not the increased capability of some new gizmo.

Consider the lowly refrigerator. If you needed to buy one 20 years ago, you’d go to a retail store and look at the models it had in stock. You’d compare the features of the different models and select the least offensive. Later, if you had complaints or suggestions about your the product, you were shunted off to a customer support line that was often busy, or staffed by someone with little or no authority to act on your request. Once you bought it, you were basically stuck with it.

If you buy one today, online reviews abound. Comparison shopping sites force retailers to compete on price, warranty, and rebates. Through their websites, companies inform customers about their products and also involve customers directly in developing new products by soliciting new ideas and reviews. Social media lets companies attract fans to their products and obtain feedback about problems with current products so they can take immediate corrective action. All of these mechanisms combine together to make it much more likely that you will be satisfied by your fridge purchase than you would have been 20 years ago.

What’s more exciting is how you will consume refrigerators in the near future. Will you even need to buy one? Perhaps manufacturers will lease you a fridge and charge a low monthly rate for managing your refrigeration needs. They might bundle energy costs in as part of the package and then help you find ways to reduce energy usage. They’ll probably invite you to share clever ways to use refrigerators, or comment on their own ideas, and innovate even better offerings next time. We will increasingly consume products like refrigeration as services rather than as products. As a result, our consumption will be more accessible, more convenient, more affordable, and more personalized.

If this seems fanciful, just look around at the other things you consume on a regular basis. Do you rent movies on DVD from Blockbuster or view them on Netflix? Do you buy gifts from a store, or get gift reminders from Amazon to buy a book or a toy or a piece of jewelry, with recommendations based on your previous purchases? Do you purchase CDs at BestBuy, or do you buy online digital music tracks individually and create your own custom-made playlists? Do you shell out cash for a printer for your home office, or do you take advantage of Xerox or HP copier services by the page? Do you hire an accountant to prepare your taxes, or do you use an online service to prepare and file your return? If you live in a city, do you own a car, or do you turn to ZipCar whenever you happen to need one?

The continuing changes in how we consume things is a good deal for us and for our suppliers. The suppliers will benefit from their ability to utilize their specialized knowledge to design better, faster, and more cost effective ways to deliver these services to us. We will benefit from greater flexibility (no upfront payment, for example), plus the comfort of only paying for what we use.

Henry Chesbrough is a professor at the Haas Business School, UC Berkeley, and the author of Open Innovation: The New Imperative for Creating and Profiting from Technology (Harvard Business Press). His new book is Open Services Innovation: Rethinking Your Business to Grow and Compete in a New Era (Jossey-Bass). Follow him at @OpenInno or at openinnovation.net.

Advertisements

From → Innovation

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: