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Invention and innovation: An introduction
Invention and innovation: An introduction

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12.3 Market pull

The alternative market pull model suggests that the stimulus for innovation comes from the needs of society or a particular section of the market (Figure 55). These might be needs perceived by an entrepreneur or manufacturer like Shaw and his cat's-eyes or they might be clearly articulated by consumers. According to this model a successful approach to innovation would be to research the market thoroughly first, assess what needs exist, how far they are met by existing products and processes and how the needs might be met more effectively by means of a new or improved innovation. The theory then is that once the appropriate technology is developed a receptive market is assured because the innovation process has been tailored to meet a definite need.

Figure 55
Figure 55 Market pull model

Therefore this model adds a stage of exploring market need before the invention stage of the technology push model. This approach might be characterised by the classic saying, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’.

Douthwaite identifies two levels of exploring market need. The first level he calls the consultancy model. In this the R&D team consults users about needs but doesn't involve them in the development process because it thinks its own experience and its ability to ask users the right questions will provide all the information it needs. Douthwaite thinks this process might work for upgrading existing technologies but is poor for developing novel products and systems. For that he suggests the best approach is the codevelopment model.

He suggests more radical inventions require an R&D team to codevelop the product or technology in conjunction with potential users. For instance work done by consumer electronics company Philips in researching users’ needs has involved users in the testing of products at various stages. At the preconcept design stage the user may be asked what sort of products do they want. At the prototype stage the user may be asked how well does this prototype work and does it meet their needs. At the post-purchase stage the user may be asked what incremental improvements to this existing product would they like to see. Even when a product is reaching maturity the user is asked what, if anything, would they like to see taking its place.

Critics of the market pull explanation point out that because an important need exists it is no guarantee that an invention will emerge to meet that need. There are many examples of long-standing needs that have yet to be satisfactorily met despite the efforts of many inventive minds, such as cures for many medical conditions, and safe road transport. Moreover the notion of a coherent market with a clearly identifiable set of needs is simplistic (Figure 56). In reality there is a complex range of sectors within the market for a particular product type. A very familiar example is the car market, with separate sectors for the supermini, family saloons and estates, people carriers, executive cars, sports cars, four-wheel-drive cars, and so on. Some theorists argue that over-concentration on the marketing concept has led companies to become preoccupied with incremental and often trivial innovations at the expense of radical breakthroughs, which are more likely to be achieved through technology push.

Figure 56
Figure 56 Motorcycle airbag in a crash test. Another example of market pull? Not entirely, many motorcyclists are resistant so most motorcycle manufacturers have not seen the need for R&D. (Source: Science Photo Library)

It is true that fulfilling human needs is an important incentive for inventors and innovators. This is especially so for improvements to existing products and innovations aimed at obvious needs, such as safety (car airbags), health (new medicines), productivity (process innovations), food supply (new strains of wheat and rice). So there is some truth in the view that necessity is the mother of invention; but this is only part of the story. Consumers cannot demand products that have not yet been conceived but needs can be created by the emergence of an innovation.

A search for the origins of the gasoline-powered motorcar reveals that it was not necessity that inspired its inventors to complete their task. The automobile was not developed in response to some grave international horse crisis or horse shortage. National leaders, influential thinkers, and editorial writers were not calling for the replacement of the horse, nor were ordinary citizens anxiously hoping that some inventors would soon fill a serious societal and personal need for motor transportation. In fact, during the first decade of existence, 1895–1905, the automobile was a toy, a plaything for those who could afford to buy one.

(Basalla, 1988, p. 198)

Remember the label ‘toy’ was also applied to early versions of Bell's telephone and Berliner's gramophone.

Indeed the need for motor vehicles arose after, not before, their invention. This invention opened up possibilities for transportation that had not previously existed and stimulated a desire to share in the benefits that were offered when it became an innovation. And the very existence of a new innovation can create previously nonexistent needs leading to new inventions. It might just as easily be said that, ‘invention is the mother of necessity’, in this and in many other cases of new technological products.