It's only fitting that among the many things disrupted by technology in 2013, innovation itself couldn't resist change. Specifically, the process of how new products are made.
We're not talking solely about manufacturing technologies such as 3-D printing, which seems to generate endless headlines because of the cool, sometimes scary and often odd things (fetus paperweights?) you can now create with these machines.
"3-D printing gets all the hype, but even perhaps more profound is this larger change," said Steve Hoover, CEO of PARC, Xerox's storied research-and-development company, where Steve Jobs drew inspiration for the Mac.
This larger change Hoover is referring to is the "democratization of product development," which he said reached a turning point this year as technologies that make it easier for entrepreneurs to design, manufacture and get funding started to go mainstream.
For example, robust yet simple software tools such as Autodesk 123D can help users lay out three-dimensional designs. Meanwhile, 3-D printers keep getting faster and cheaper. And if price is still an issue, UPS this year began offering an in-store 3-D printing service geared toward entrepreneurs.
And last, but certainly not least, is the growing popularity of crowdfunding sites. Kickstarter, which helps people turn their ideas into reality by raising money from the public instead of venture capitalists, has successfully funded more than 53,000 projects.
With the growing accessibility of these three key areas in product development, Hoover said we're "seeing the start of this quiet revolution that could absolutely change the consumer goods industry."
But it's still early. Very early. He likens today to desktop publishing decades ago when it started to reach the masses. At the time, some people thought, "That's for the den mothers to make their monthly newsletters," he said. Of course, it turned out to be much more. Self-publishing technologies allowed people to more easily become creators, which in turn gave consumers more content choices outside of mass media. Fast-forward to today, and you can see how much the media world has changed because of technology that gave individuals the tools to publish on their own.
Hoover sees the same kind of transition happening in the business of making things.
Of course, PARC — a pioneer in computing, the graphical user interface, laser printing and Ethernet — has a vested interest in how things are made. One of its areas of focus is design and digital manufacturing. The wholly-owned subsidiary of Xerox also specializes in clean technology, content distribution technology and printed electronics, among other areas.
PARC, which describes itself as being in the business of innovation, gets about half of its revenue from partnerships outside of Xerox. PARC's clients include government agencies and corporations including Procter & Gamble and Samsung. On the global front, the Palo Alto, California-based company has an office in Tokyo and recently partnered with China's Chongqing University to teach students and faculty about innovation and how to commercialize new technologies.
With alliances like that, along with increasingly cheaper and simpler tools for creation, the innovation spotlight should shine brighter on areas outside of Silicon Valley.
"It's not a birthright that all innovation happens here," Hoover said. "Sometimes we think it is. There's a certain kind of arrogance that can happen, but I think the smart people understand that good ideas can come anywhere."