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Why Nike Really Lets You Design Your Own Sneakers

Ten years of innovation, lesson No. 8: We’re all open source.

Why Nike Really Lets You Design Your Own Sneakers
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When we lauded Nike in our first World’s Most Innovative Companies issue in 2008, it was in part because of Nike iD, a then-revolutionary way for its customers to imprint personalized designs onto Nike sneakers. The inclusion of “iD studios” in Niketown stores pointed toward the increasing theatricality required in retail, while iD capability on nike.com reflected the explosive potential of digital commerce.

What we didn’t explicitly mention—but should have—was the consumer side of the equation: How iD tapped into customers’ desire to create their own products. Because in today’s marketplace, each of us has become a creator, in ways that few fully appreciated a decade ago.

From Facebook and YouTube to Snapchat and Instagram, millions of people around the globe now generate their own media. New, easy-to-use tech tools built into phones and via apps have spawned an unparalleled age of creativity. Whether the consequences are good or bad—across entertainment, or even politics—can be heatedly debated. What’s incontrovertible is that the genie is not going back in the bottle. (Schools are integrating these creative tools into curricula, breeding a generation of not just digital natives but native creators.)

And the input of the crowd isn’t restricted to social posts and videos. Matchmaking platforms like Angelist are spreading investment opportunity in new ways. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo have fueled direct participation in the ideation and production of products. From Meetup to Crowdrise to the philanthropic-leaning GoFundMe, there are burgeoning platforms for engagement in social, cultural, and civic activities.

Even within big companies, the “open sourcing” of ideas through contests and other employee-wide programs has injected the idea of entrepreneurship inside bureaucracies. A bottom-up model of idea generation and decision making has taken hold at businesses from Zappos to Intuit. The most powerful corner offices are, increasingly, animated by initiatives spawned at cubicles, lunchroom tables, and Slack channels.

This phenomenon has not only been encouraged and enabled by technology; technological processes have themselves changed as a result. The open-source movement in software development and the spread of API-based systems are both reflections of this cultural wave. GitHub, which provides a platform for communal sharing of code, may be the most potent manifestation of how creativity on one project is now spreading seamlessly and inexorably into a vast array of unpredictable areas.

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We all really do have a voice in the modern era. Customized sneakers, it turns out, were only the beginning.

This article is part of our coverage of the World’s Most Innovative Companies of 2017.

About the author

Robert Safian is editor and managing director of the award-winning monthly business magazine Fast Company. He oversees all editorial operations, in print and online, and plays a key role in guiding the magazine's advertising, marketing, and circulation efforts.

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