Disruptive innovation is an idea that contains within it a distinct attitude towards the sociotechnical world. It is a way to think about technology that corresponds with standards and expectations that direct technological society towards particular ends while simultaneously foregoing other ends.
Disruptive innovation has captured the popular imagination of tech enthusiasts. Slogans like ‘disrupt or be disrupted’ abound amongst eager business school graduates looking to cash in on the next digital start-up while ‘disruptive innovation festivals’ hosted by educational institutions, industry groups, and celebrities parallel a celebration of start-ups and innovation hubs that, according to entrepreneurs and media pundits, equate economic prosperity with disruption.
Disruptive innovation can be considered part of what Benoit Godin (2015) identifies as the “value episteme” of the contemporary iteration of the concept of innovation in which “innovation becomes a value per se, the verbal arsenal of honour and praise…object of veneration and cult worship…a panacea for every socioeconomic problem” (p.6).
Indeed, a simple search of the terms “disruption” or “disruptive innovation” across different English language newspapers and periodicals shows that the usage of the term is increasing in both business publications and the mainstream media such that it has become predictable to describe new technologies or sociotechnical processes as “disruptive.”
Given the variations of technological determinism that endow disruptive innovation with a sense of triumphant inevitability, it would be easy to be skeptical about the rhetoric that surrounds this concept. But it would be a mistake to dismiss this rhetoric as empty posturing.
Disruptive innovation has, of course, been subject to criticism and empirical scrutiny. Business professors have found many of the historical and predictive claims of the theory questionable (King & Baarartogtokh 2015) while social theorists and historians deride the concept as an empty slogan used to dress-up old fashioned ideas about progress and contemporary neo-liberal ambitions (Lepore 2014).
Yet, despite the ease with which writers dismiss the idea of disruptive innovation, it is not insignificant that one reads that Google’s forays into health care are “disruptive” or that Uber is “disrupting” the taxi industry. In these and many other instances, a whole series of shared understandings and expectations are drawn upon to explain complex sociotechnical processes through one handy and self-explanatory idea: disruptive innovation.
Drawing out in more detail some of the elements that characterize the idea of disruptive innovation reveals that it is an idea that contains within it a distinct attitude towards the sociotechnical world. It is a way to think about technology that corresponds with standards and expectations that direct technological society towards particular ends while simultaneously foregoing other ends.
The origins of disruptive innovation date back to the 1997 publication of The Innovator’s Dilemma by Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen in which he uses the term to describe the processes by which new firms disrupt markets by offering cheaper goods and services to consumers that incumbent firms overlook.
Incumbent firms, Christensen argues, tend to focus on their most profitable customers and thus tend towards developing what he calls “sustaining” innovations –innovations that improve products for existing consumers, such as a clearer television picture, better cell phone reception, or the fifth razor blade. As incumbents focus on improving their products and services for their most demanding and most profitable customers, they fail to meet the needs of other potential consumers. Entrants that prove disruptive begin by successfully targeting these overlooked non-consumers, gaining a foothold by delivering similar functionality that incumbents do – frequently at a lower price. Incumbents, chasing higher profitability, tend not to respond to these entrants. Entrants then move upmarket, delivering the performance that incumbents’ mainstream customers require, while preserving the advantages that drove their early success, like lower prices or greater convenience. When mainstream customers start adopting the entrants offerings in volume, disruption has occurred (Chirstensen 1997; Christensen, Raynor & McDonald 2005, p.46; Gans 2016).
In its original form, then, the theory of disruptive innovation developed out of case studies to explain why businesses fail. However, it has moved beyond its business school origins and is now one of the many concepts used to describe, and predict, early twenty-first sociotechnical culture.
Disruptive innovation has moved beyond its business school origins and is now one of the concepts used to describe processes by which networked digital technologies and platforms are endowed with the capability to transform what are seen as anachronistic and inefficient industries and institutions. Although the application of the term does not always correspond with Christensen’s original theory, the term disruptive innovation seems uniquely suited to describe the shift towards using big data, personalization, analytics, and increasing processing speeds to transform existing ways of producing, distributing, and consuming goods and services.
As an idea, or a concept, disruptive innovation strongly resonates with the experience of early twenty-first sociotechnical culture while still maintaining an ambiguity, or ambivalence, towards any one particular variation of this culture. Besides being a useful policy tool for neoliberal proponents of deregulation and market expansion, disruptive innovation is used to explain and promote both circular and sustainable economies while also being invoked by critical social theorists who use it to predict the future of automation and labour and the emergence of a new post-capitalist political economy (Mason 2015; Srnicek & Williams 2015).
Certainly, the term disruptive innovation is new, as are the sociotechnical processes and changes that are typically associated with it, but the attitudes, assumptions, and ambitions that correspond with disruptive innovation are not bound to its contemporary usage.
Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto (1994 ), for example, recognized that disruption is inseparable from modernity, capitalism, and bourgeois culture: “Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones” (p.161; see also Berman 1982). Similarly, Joseph Schumpeter’s (2010 ) idea of creative destruction foreshadows the same disruptive processes “discovered” by Clayton Christensen in the 1990s.
One can also look to the Italian Futurists, who were active in Italy between 1909 and 1944 and propagated sociotechnical ambitions and initiatives that reflected the newly modern industrial society that had emerged in Europe in the early 20th century.
The Futurists worshipped the speed and power of technologies like automobiles, factories and airplanes and sought to integrate the logic of machinery of modern industry into all traditional art forms, which were stale, decadent, and in need of replacement. In The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism, Filippo Tommaso (F.T.) Marinetti writes “We affirm the that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed (Marinetti, 1909 , p.20).” And just as the more enthusiastic proponents of disruptive innovation celebrate the increasing speed of digital networks and come to view the past as a hindrance to their version of progress, the Futurists wanted to “destroy the cult of the past, the obsession with the ancients… (Boccioni et. al. 1910 , p.26),” and announced that they “will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind (Marinetti 1909 , p.22).”
So, what is actually new about disruptive innovation, if anything?
Drawing from different examples of disruptive innovations, it is possible to identify a few key elements that characterize disruptive innovation, both in its original formation and its more popular version.
First, disruptive innovation is oriented towards “new and emerging” technologies. Those technologies that are “old and unchanging” do not seem to register as anything other than impediments to disruption.
Second, within the schema of disruption, individuals and social groups are prioritized as consumers, not workers. For consumers, the fruits of disruptive innovation are convenience, choice, and speed; for labour, disruptive innovation tends to bring precariousness, the dismantling of organized labour, and increased competition amongst workers.
What tech enthusiasts call “disruption” is in fact almost always directed at forms of organization that preserve a modicum of workers’ control over knowledge and the products of labor. Because London taxicabs are controlled by people who have built up impressive maps of one of the world’s most complex cities in their brains, they ought to be replaced by self-driving cars operating on Google maps…automation isn’t a neutral, inevitable part of capitalism. It comes about through the desire to break formal and informal systems of workers’ control – including unions – and replace them with managerially controlled and minutely surveilled systems of piecework” (“After Capitalism,” n+1, Winter 2016, p.10).
Even the state must cede control to consumers who are in danger of missing out on the benefits of disruptive innovation because of laws and regulations. In a paper titled “Disrupting Law School” produced by the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, one reads that:
Regulations—such as bar licensure and restrictions on the unauthorized practice of law—will not protect lawyers and law schools from disruption in the long term. Lessons from regulated industries show that disruptors can topple the incumbents in these industries by first innovating outside of the reach of regulators; as the up-starts accumulate a sufficient number of customers, regulators cave ex post facto to the new reality in reaction to the innovator’s success (Pistone & Horn 2016, p.8).
Third, disruptive innovation as a theory that explains sociotechnical change tends to flourish in cultures where fear is predominant. For example, business professor Joshua Gans (2016) writes, “that following the dot com bust and 9/11, the world’s managers were receptive to a message of fear.” Similarly, the historian Jill Lepore notes that: “Disruptive innovation is competitive strategy for an age seized by terror… It’s a theory of history founded on a profound anxiety about financial collapse, an apocalyptic fear of global devastation.”
Indeed, the narrative thread in the NY Times Report on Innovation is a sense of panic and fear in which change is necessary because “the need is urgent” to grow audience engagement (p.24) while “the pace of change is so fast that solutions can quickly seem out of date” (p.56).
This culture of fear has also developed its own history in which any sense of continuity with the past is rejected in favour of an “intense present” in which unforeseen forces stand ready to disrupt, at any time, any collective sense of safety or confidence in the world as it is.
Darryl Cressman is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Maastricht University. He specializes in Philosophy of Technology and is the author of Building musical culture in Nineteenth-century Amsterdam: the concertgebouw (University of Amstedam Press, 2016)
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