User Innovation Hits the Road

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User innovation, a concept developed by MIT's Eric von Hippel, has become a watchword in information technology. But it also has literally more down-to-earth applications, as this Newark Star-Ledger account of a single-person, pothole-filling truck (urgently needed hereabouts) suggests:

[T]he technology behind the trucks, invented more than 20 years ago, has improved dramatically during that time. A few years ago, the driver still had to leave the truck to position the valves -- a step that added about two minutes to the process, said Craig Baclit, president of Patch Management. Now, he can now control the valves from inside the truck.

But the concept hasn't taken off until the last few years, said [the inventor, Scott] Kleiger, who came up with the idea of a one-man truck as a teenager working in road construction. Five years ago, only a handful of states leased the trucks.

Now, that number has tripled to 17, including California, Ohio, Maryland, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Florida. States can either hire Patch Management operators, or -- as in the case of New Jersey -- assign their own workers to receive training and operate the trucks.

There must be many other unglamorous but socially beneficial innovations for hands-on entrepreneurs who keep their eyes open.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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