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The more dire the climate change predictions, the louder the calls for new and disruptive technologies. While it's a great aspiration, as a theory disruptive innovation provides dangerous guidance on how disruption really happens.
I've talked before about how not all that disrupts is good, and not all that is good disrupts. But on the heels of yesterday's DOE headline shouting ARPA-E ANNOUNCES $60M IN FUNDING OPPORTUNITIES FOR DISRUPTIVE ENERGY TECHNOLOGIES (a call for disruptive improvements in coal burning)—it's worth thinking about how disruption happens.
Jill Lepore's recent takedown of the theory of disruptive innovation pointed out not only some of its weaker points but also, from the reactions it provoked, the strength of its followers. The term has now become the rallying cry of every entrepreneur, venture capitalist, middle manager, consultant, and now government agency promising to change things.
Disrupt or be disrupted.
When it comes to selling innovation, it's the “new and improved” logo on your laundry detergent. This is not your father's innovation—this innovation goes to eleven.
In fact, disruptive innovation has become so embedded in the national psyche—both in business and now in politics—as to be counter-productive. This should not be a contentious claim since, as Will Oremus of Slate points out, it is something both LePore and Christensen agree upon.
It didn't start out this way. The original definition, offered by Joseph Bower and Clayton Christensen in their original 1995 HBR article, was more narrow in scope:
Disruptive technologies introduce a very different package of attributes from the one mainstream customers historically value, and they often perform far worse along one or two dimensions that are particularly important to those customers. As a rule, mainstream customers are unwilling to use a disruptive product in applications they know and understand. At first, then, disruptive technologies tend to be used and valued only in new markets or new applications; in fact, they generally make possible the emergence of new markets.
Now, the label gets slapped on pretty much anything—a new technology, new venture, new business model—that has revolutionary aspirations. Or even evolutionary aspirations, like improving the efficiency of coal burning plants.
But the real problem is more insidious. That's because disruptiveness is not an inherent quality of a technology (or business model or idea). It's an outcome—the observable changes to an industry's technological, organizational, and economic structure after something happens.
If we believe a particular technology or business model or idea holds all the potential for disruption inside it, like some technological homunculus, then we lose sight of the process that leads to disruptive outcomes. Basically, everything else that's required to make a technology disruptive.
It can be hard to see in the moment, so consider something that gives us a little less hyperbole and a little more perspective—the disruption of shipping by the steam engine.
Few would argue that the steam engine powered the Industrial Revolution: first by pumping water from progressively deeper coal mines, then by powering textile mills, factories, railroads, and ships.
The steam engine's role in shipping neatly fits the original definition of a disruptive technology. It was first introduced in the early 1800s (in England in 1802 with Patrick Miller's Charlotte Dundas and in the U.S. in 1807 with Robert Fulton's Clermont) for a niche market as small, river-going vessels built for short routes on calm waters. And by the end of the century, sailing ships were all but gone, and steamships revolutionized the global transport of goods and passengers.
So did the steam engine disrupt shipping? Sure, but does that, ipso facto, make it a disruptive technology? Almost a half century of other social, regulatory, and technical innovations had to happen before the steam engine could economically enter, let alone transform, shipping. Here are a few of the more influential innovations:
What drove the disruption of shipping? Economic and regulatory shifts created the demand for innovations in shipping. Advances of ship designs, proven first in sailing ships, unwittingly suited the oceangoing steamships and even more so the screw-propeller designs that would emerge after the 1850s. Sure the steam engine was at the center of it all, but it was hardly the guiding force.
The disruption to shipping associated with steam power peaked roughly in 1875 and continued only through the first decades of the 20th century. By then, the steam engine had created the conditions for the next disruption, the internal combustion engine and diesel fuel.
Calling for, let alone funding, “disruptive technologies” brings both false hopes and foolish actions if it isn't tempered by the recognition that the impact of any emerging technology depends as much on changes in complementary technologies, market demands, regulatory policies as its own inherent properties.
Post date: 2014-10-04 22:36:15
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