Identifying NBS innovations using the Lead User Method

Lead Users are able to identify market gaps and create their own solutions. A lot of valuable self-developed nature-based (or related) solutions have already been implemented at the local scale but are not broadly diffused yet. Following the Lead User Method, RECONECT will find workable but unexplored lead user innovations and make them available for other communities in need.

8 min readJul 9, 2020

Authors: Dr. Vytaute Dlugoborskyte (Institute for Technology and Innovation Management, Hamburg University of Technology); Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Cornelius Herstatt (Head of the Department, Institute for Technology and Innovation Management, Hamburg University of Technology)

Who the Lead Users are

The common understanding of innovations and innovative activities presumes that producers develop innovative goods and services in order to sell them to customers, consequently following benefit-motivated goals. In contrast, users innovate when they cannot find suitable products or solutions in the market that satisfy their needs. Such user innovations are frequently developed by so-called Lead Users.

Lead users are individuals or organizations suffering from unsolved problems and/or having strong needs while having no access to appropriate solutions. Lead users can discover trends and needs earlier than other market participants, being able to articulate those needs appropriately. Therefore, they invest their time and resources to develop their own solutions — even though time and resources are often limited — and thus benefit from their ideas themselves. If such solutions are well perceived by others who are facing the same problems, they have the potential to become general solutions for the marketplace and thereby help many others.

Position of Lead Users in the Product Innovation Diffusion Curve [From Churchill, J., von Hippel, E., Sonnack, M., 2009. Lead user project handbook: A practical guide for lead user project teams]

The following example illustrates the activity level of innovating users. Some years back, the German postal service provider (Deutsche Post DHL group) tried to convince some major German car manufacturers to provide it with a functional and inexpensive electric vehicle for its postal services within cities. Yet, all the companies contacted were unwilling or unable to equip DHL with such a car. Out of necessity, DHL started collaborating with a small university spinoff and subsequently developed a car according to its needs. As of early 2019, DHL was using more than 9,000 of the StreetScooter. Further, due to the high market demand, it has also begun to sell this e-vehicle to other companies. Thus, DHL is a user firm that has developed a tool it needed to better provide its regular services. Coincidentally, it has recently become the fifth-largest manufacturer of e-vehicles in Germany, a status it never intended to reach in the first place.

The Lead User Method

In order to continuously and actively search for lead users in a structured way, the Lead User Method was developed (von Hippel, 1987)[i]. This is a four-stage process for identifying innovative users that are developing products in response to their own needs and involving them in a new product development process of an organization. The method constitutes of the following stages:

1. Start of the lead user process;

2. Identification of needs and trends;

3. Identification of lead users;

4. Concept design.

The four stages of the Lead User Method

The first two steps are more general and reflect typical activities of many innovation management projects. The central phase in the lead user method is the identification of lead users (Step III). The last step, the joint concept development between the manufacturer and the identified lead users in a workshop, ideally leads to an interactive value creation process in which an innovative solution is jointly developed.

The value created by Lead Users

Lead Users already develop product ideas or even prototypes when commercial products do not yet exist. Thus, they offer essential insights for the development of innovative and particularly customer-oriented products and services (Herstatt and von Hippel, 1992)[ii]. In fact, research shows that lead users collectively generate massive amounts of product innovations (von Hippel, 2011)[iii]. Well-known examples of lead user innovations are the heart-lung machine, skateboards or the coffee filter. These user-centric products can be found in most of the sectors.

Lead User Innovation examples

In order to gain access to these users and their innovative ideas, the application of the Lead User Method has proven itself in practice. It has already been for several times applied by the Institute for Technology and Innovation Management at the Hamburg University of Technology in numerous industrial projects in various sectors (among others in cooperation with Lufthansa Technik, Johnson and Johnson Medical, the Maquet-Group and EWE). Since lead users usually only use their inventions themselves or in their local environment, they are rarely commercialised and disseminated.

Lead User Method for identification of Nature-Based Solutions to reduce Hydro-Meteorological Risks

The Lead User Method in the frames of RECONECT will be applied with the aim to identify NBS and NBS related monitoring and measuring techniques to reduce hydro-meteorological risks developed by lead users, which as concepts for new products or services have strong market opportunities, applicability and transferability. We expect that due to the recent hydro-meteorological events and new patterns that are emerging in Europe, there will be more and more individuals, groups or communities and organizations who are innovating in respect to their own urgent hydro-meteorological risk-related needs, and who are, in fact, lead users. Those lead users might have developed a physical product, a (digital) service or a concept that is related to NBS and improves their resilience towards hydro-meteorological risks.

Following the method, we will find out products such as Airdrop, a device developed by a university student touched by one of the worst droughts ever registered in Australia. This self-powering system, able to deliver moisture to the soil by capturing the humid air from the atmosphere, was of real help to orange farmers who for years were suffering from mounting debts and failing crops. Other great examples of lead user-developed NBS are elevated houses in Pakistani village or a living weir introduced by a local community in Thailand. Elevated houses raised after a wheat farmer living in this remote village had to rebuild his house several times due to recurring inundation. At one point, he decided to adapt and rebuilt it on a raised dirt platform with surrounding eucalyptus trees. This new housing concept did not take long to be adopted by locals and transfused to nearby villages, decreasing flood risks and, consequently, emigration from the area. A living weir in Thailand is also a nature-based structure that was built on local knowledge and with local materials, such as sandbags, bamboo and banyan trees, in order to change the velocity of a river. This resulted not only in higher flood resilience but also in an increase in groundwater levels, higher biodiversity and a sediment trap.

In the context of hydro-meteorological hazards, the Institute for Technology and Innovation Management at the Hamburg University of Technology together with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the Red Cross Indonesia (Palang Merah Indonesia, PMI) implemented the Lead User Method to identify local innovations to strengthen flood resilience in Indonesia. 25 lead user innovations were successfully identified and were highly evaluated for their potential by the experts.

Examples of lead user innovations to strengthen flood resilience in Indonesia (Project RESTORE, 2018)

In RECONECT we will identify self-developed nature-based (or related) solutions, to further develop them together with the lead users, if necessary, to evaluate their potential of scalability and transferability, and, ideally, to support them in their commercialisation, so that the innovation (product and/or service) can finally successfully exist on the market without external help. Accordingly, the four-stage method is slightly adapted:

  1. Start of the lead user process → An interdisciplinary core team is built with members of all project partners and an extended team including all stakeholders and partners who are working on NBS to reduce hydro-meteorological risks. The first and the most important step is aimed at opening the solution space and collaboratively deciding: (I) What ideas do we want to identify by applying the lead user method? (II) Are we looking at innovations targeting one kind of hydro-meteorological hazard or all kinds of hazards? (III) Do we want to focus on the location (urban or rural areas)? (IV) What is the regional focus of our research? As a result, the questions help to define the scope for the analysis using the lead user method.
  2. Identification of needs and trends → The most relevant trends and drivers of specific hydro-meteorological hazards are selected and available information (literature, online-communities, expert knowledge) is analyzed. Such trends might include the increased frequency of hydro-meteorological hazards, regional occurrence of hydro-meteorological hazards, infrastructure damages and upcoming health issues. It is also important to look at the measures and standard procedures currently applied by local communities and authorities to cope with hydro-meteorological risks and associated problems. This part of the study is carried out via desk research and interviews with experts in hydro-meteorological hazards and NBS.
  3. Identification of lead users → Identify lead users and their nature-based (or related) solutions targeting hydro-meteorological risks. The aim is to detect individuals, communities and organizations who were innovating because directly affected by hydro-meteorological hazards and/or with analogous important issues identified by the core team.
  4. Concept design → A workshop is conducted where all innovations are jointly screened by the core team. Afterwards, the most promising innovations will be selected and presented during the partner meeting of the RECONECT project.

Key concept

Lead Users are a valuable resource in every sector. The Lead User Method in RECONECT will permit to find out how individuals and communities innovate using NBS to better cope with hydro-meteorological risks. We aim to discover Lead Users (people and/or organizations) who have already developed workable solutions for their own needs but, for different reasons, could not yet broadly diffuse those inventions. In the end, we will try to find ways to up-scale the most valuable innovations and to make them generally available for those in need.


[i] von Hippel, E., 1976. The dominant role of users in the scientific instrument innovation process. Research Policy, 5(3), 212–239.

[ii] Herstatt, C., von Hippel, E., 1992. From experience: Developing new product concepts via the lead user method: A case study in a “low-tech” field. The Journal of Product Innovation Management

[iii] von Hippel, E., 2011. The user innovation revolution. MIT Sloan Management Review, 53, 1–7.

Churchill, J., von Hippel, E., Sonnack, M., 2009. Lead user project handbook: A practical guide for lead user project teams.




The RECONECT project demonstrates the effectiveness of Nature-Based Solutions for hydro-meteorological risk reduction in rural and natural areas