Evidence of pioneering by free innovators in whitewater kayaking

The first of the two studies I will review involves innovation in equipment used in the sport of whitewater kayaking. Whitewater kayaking involves using specialized kayaks to maneuver in rough white water and also to perform acrobatic "moves" or "tricks" such as spins and flips. The sport began in about 1955 when a few adventurous kayakers began to develop methods of entering white water waves sideways or backward as a form of play. Soon, these "extreme paddlers" found one another and formed small communities to enjoy and develop the sport together. From those small beginnings, the sport of whitewater kayaking slowly grew to substantial size. In the mid 1970s there were only about 5,000 whitewater kayaking "enthusiasts" (frequent participants) in the United States (Taft 2001). By 2008 the sport had spread around the world and 1.2 million people were engaged in it, accounting for about 15 percent of all paddling activities (Outdoor Foundation 2009, 44). Expenditures by participants for gear and travel and other services reached hundreds of millions of dollars annually by 2009 (Outdoor Industry Foundation 2006; Outdoor Foundation 2009).

Hienerth (2006) and Hienerth, von Hippel, and Jensen (2014) studied the innovation history of whitewater kayaking from 1955 to 2010, carefully documenting the nature and source of innovations deemed "most important” by both expert kayakers and field historians. At the conclusion of this work, my colleagues and I had a sample of 108 important innovations that had been developed during four distinct phases in the sport's innovation history.

In phase 1 (1955-1973), whitewater kayaking was originated by adventurous kayakers as was noted earlier, and the basic outlines of the sport were laid down by the kayakers themselves. Kayakers were also the only developers of important equipment innovations in phase 1, collectively developing fifty. Near the middle of phase 1, small producers began to enter to serve the nascent market with commercial versions of kayaker-developed innovations. The producers developed no important innovations during that phase.

In phase 2 (1974-2000), whitewater kayaking techniques and equipment continued to develop rapidly. During phase 2, kayakers developed thirty important innovations and producers developed ten. Among the important producer innovations was the first rotationally molded plastic kayak hulls. These were much sturdier than the fiberglass versions that both kayakers and producers had been making previously. They were an essential enabler as kayakers steadily learned how to maneuver and play in increasingly rough water.

In phase 3 (1980-1990), which coincided with the middle years of phase 2, a few highly skilled kayakers, and eventually about a thousand, departed from the main practices of the sport to develop a novel form of whitewater play that they called "squirtboating.” Squirtboating involved development of new maneuvers ("3D moves”) that were carried out partially underwater in "squirtboats” of novel design. Squirtboats have very little buoyancy and were only safe in the hands of expert paddlers. Kayakers were the only innovators in phase 3, collectively developing ten important innovations.

In phase 4 (2000-2010), squirtboating largely merged back into the mainstream of the sport as a result of general adoption of the "rodeo kayak” hull design developed by kayakers. The hull of a rodeo kayak has high buoyancy at the center of the boat but very low buoyancy at the ends, and enables even non-expert playboaters to perform many 3D moves such as forcing the bow or stern of the boat underwater and doing end-to-end flips. In phase 4, kayakers developed no important equipment innovations and producers developed four.

The pattern and the sources of important whitewater kayaking innovations just described are summarized graphically in figure 4.1. As can be seen, kayak users clearly were the innovation pioneers in the new sport, preceding producers by more than 20 years. Further, kayak users were clearly the dominant source of important innovations in the sport. Of the 108 most important equipment innovations, 87 percent were developed by kayak users; only 13 percent were developed by all kayak producers in aggregate (Hienerth, von Hippel, and Jensen 2014). As can also be seen in the figure, the rates of important innovations by both users and producers decreased over time (a matter I will return to shortly).

The pattern in whitewater kayaking clearly fits the argument made at the start of the chapter. In line with the premise of that argument,

Figure 4.1

Source of important whitewater kayaking innovations over time. Source of data: Hienerth, von Hippel, and Jensen 2014, table 2.

innovating whitewater kayakers, when surveyed, reported being almost entirely motivated by self-rewards that could be obtained in full measure right from the start of the new sport. As can be seen in table 4.1, their self-reward came largely in the form of personal use of their kayaking innovations. They also freely shared their designs with peers and with producers (Baldwin, Hienerth, and von Hippel 2006; Hienerth, von Hippel, and Jensen 2014).

Table 4.1

Average motivations of household sector whitewater kayak equipment innovators.

Expected benefits from personal use


Enjoyment from creating the innovation


To help others (altruism)


Learning from creating the innovation


Other motives


Potential profit from innovation sales


Source: Hienerth, von Hippel, and Jensen 2014, table 6. Sample size: 201.

In contrast, producers are motivated by sales and profits. Clearly the small size of the potential market from the inception of the sport through the mid 1970s (there were only 5,000 enthusiast participants 20 years after the start of the sport, mostly designing and building boats to suit themselves) would have been less attractive to producers than was the large market of over a million participants that had emerged by 2010. Thus, in whitewater kayaking, the pattern of pioneering by kayakers—free user innovators—is clear and makes good economic sense.

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