To be sure, not all user innovations end up in the marketplace right away. Just ask Felix Kramer, founder of the Palo Alto-based California Cars Initiative, a nonprofit whose mission is to bring plug-in hybrid vehicles to the market.

Kramer and other Calcars volunteers rigged a 2004 Toyota Prius witha battery pack so that it can be plugged into a 120-volt outlet and then operated on the resulting charge. "It's as if you added another small fuel tank to the car," Kramer says. That modification boosts the overall miles per gallon of gas of the Prius past 100.

But Kramer isn't interested in manufacturing plug-in hybrids. "Our whole goal is to get the car companies to do this; we promote awareness and enthusiasm," he notes.

However, given today's technology, the price tag for a plug-in battery system retrofilled on a Prius would hit about $10,000, says Dave Hermance, executive engineer at Toyota. "Plug-ins are an interesting concept, but they don't today offer a good value to customers."

That doesn't mean Toyota doesn't gain anything from Kramer's work."It will still benefit by learning how many users pick up the idea," says von Hippel. If the number grows large enough, Toyota may decide it makes sense to pursue the concept.

TOYOTA'S RESPONSE TO Calcar's invention isn't unusual. Many companies are leery of working directly with users, if only because of the legal issues to consider.

Most companies go to great steps to avoid putting themselves in a position in which they could be accused of stealing someone's invention. That's why many prohibit their product-development employees from even looking at ideas submitted by individuals outside their companies.

Before organizations work with customers or others outside the company to develop ideas for new products, both sides need to agree on the way in which any intellectual properties resulting from the collaboration will be divided. “You have to tread carefully,” says Stephen Noe, deputy executive director of the American Intellectual Property Law Association in Arlington, Virginia.

Certainly, these legal and marketing concerns are significant, and companies need to think through them. At some organizations, however, ideas are given consideration only if they’re generated from within, von Hippel says. “Companies have the idea that only they should develop things.”

That’s a mind-set that will need to change if an organization is to thrive long-term.

Current technology is allowing more users and customers to participate, to varying degrees, in developing the products they buy and use. For instance, consumers can go online to configure the cars they’d like to buy and to design the jeans they’d like to wear.

While chances are slim that we’ll revert to the days when we built our own furniture and grew our own food, the prevalence of user innovation is likely to keep rising. People like that they can get products that more precisely fit their needs. “It’s kind of another industrial revolution,” says Franke.