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6 January 2016

Is our Obsession with Tech Innovation Turning us into Digital Lemmings?

Written by: Satyen Dayal, Senior Director at Edelman

Innovation, Technology

The imminent arrival of ‘Storm Barney’ last November was accompanied by a warning from the Environment Agency (EA) urging people to avoid taking extreme selfies – particularly around coastal paths and promenades! For some this no doubt added to the ongoing debate about whether smartphones are only making us dumber. I wondered whether society’s obsession with tech innovation would ultimately see us all taking a long walk off a short pier.

One starting point for knowing whether we are all at risk of becoming digital lemmings is to understand the true impact tech is having in changing our everyday lives. In the same week as ‘Storm Selfie’, Harvard Business Review published an article suggesting that we might have a firm grasp of the wrong end of the stick when it comes to our understanding of tech innovation. Specifically, Clayton Christensen, Michael Raynor and Rory McDonald set the record straight on Disruptive Innovation, a theory first proposed by Christensen in a 1995 HBR paper.

In this latest paper, we are replayed some of the principles that originally defined disruptive innovation and offered further observations that reinforce the idea of what it is, and crucially, what it isn’t.  There are a lot of factors at play but it essentially appears to boil down to two filters. Truly disruptive innovations either began life having served the ‘unserved’ end of a market (e.g. disrupting by putting innovation in the hands of those who gained no benefit from the incumbent players) or creating an entirely new market that turned non-consumers into consumers.

Everything else falls into the important but less revolutionary camp of ‘sustaining innovations’.

Controversially, Uber, a brand synonymous with the term disruption has been used as an example of what disruptive innovation isn’t. Having spent a number of years championing the smartphone market pre-iPhone, just as controversial to me was the idea of using Apple’s device as an example of what disruptive innovation is. However, I couldn’t deny that only after the iPhone’s arrival did we see a smartphone with the potential to disrupt the mainstream laptop market and bring mobile computing to the unserved.

When you apply the lens of disruptive innovation theory it’s clear that very few of the changes we’ve experienced in the tech revolution are truly game changing. This is fine. Small things do make a big difference and without sustaining innovations there’d be a huge amount missing in our lives. So for the foreseeable future at least (discounting the emergence of Artificially Intelligent Robot Overlords), we are in the main likely to reject innovation that puts our lives at risk – it wouldn’t be very disruptive if it did.

Some care is needed in how firms articulate tech innovation. Edelman’s own research has shown how people are showing signs of resistance to being told they must live in a constant state of change. Nevertheless, losing the disruption mantra does not mean giving up some of the ideas that define it. For example, innovations that serve the unserved even if they don’t break into the mainstream aren’t necessarily a bad thing – People should hear and care about them.

In the meantime, Environment Agencies around the world can rest assured there won’t be a mass charge of selfie-stick wielding lemmings headed for the UK coastline.

Image: Fixazh / Shutterstock.com

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