Disruptive Innovation

Disruptions happen when technologies are brought together to perform tasks in different ways

Disruptive innovation is a term that sounds good, feels good, and creates visions of an exciting future and unheard-of valuations. Every start-up declares its intent of creating “disruptive innovation”. It offers opportunities to work on disruption and gives out stock options to attract talented people who don’t mind working in garages, basements and attics.

This term is usually associated with high technology, genius-level competence and an attitude that challenges the existing order, along with people who bring in high levels of creativity and passion, and have the stamina to carry it all through. Companies and start-ups, through disruptive innovation, seek to do nothing less than change the world.

Historical disruptions

It may be a modern buzzword, but mankind’s entire history consists of wave after wave of disruptive innovation. When cavemen first succeeded in striking flint stones against each other to spark a fire, they managed to not just scare the beasts away, but also prise open many possibilities — a torch to negotiate jungle trails; a means to keep warm on cold, wintry nights; a means to make food taste better, and so on.

Taming wild plants for more dependable food sources, and animals to harness their power for transportation, transformed the way things were done. Wheel and metal opened up whole new trades and industries. Indeed, mankind has survived and thrived on innovation that disrupted animal predators and overcame the many challenges posed by nature.

The meaning

Clayton Christensen defined disruptive innovation as something that creates a new market and a value network that eventually ends up disrupting existing markets and players.

A flint stone sparked fire that disrupted the order of jungles. Stone tools, metal working, wheels, and taming of plants and animals are evidence of mankind’s ability to change the way that things are done. Given that transportation and communication were very slow, the above disruptions took time to spread and spawn further disruption.

It’s all about speed

Today, disruptive innovation is associated with dizzying pace, with things getting done at breakneck speed, or ideas that are born in hackathons. Yet, scientific research and technological development that takes years, if not generations of painstaking work, provides the bedrock for innovation.

Basic research in physics showed that a semiconductor junction can do some ‘useful things’. From this, microelectronics (small electronic components) was born. It took years to make microelectronics reliable and affordable enough for practical use.

The theory of computation that led to the invention of the ‘Turing machine’ in 1937, showed the promise of a programmable machine. These disruptions, together with developments in many other technologies, such as wireless communications, led to waves of disruptive innovations like digital computers, personal computers, telephone networks, and smartphones.

Modern smartphones are smart partly because they are beehives of tiny sensors, like GPS, proximity, acceleration, and compass. These sensors could be developed because of advances in materials sciences and the miniaturisation of electronics.

It’s important to understand that disruptive innovation is possible because of scientific research and technological development that spans years or decades.

Modern disruptions

Taxi hailing services like Uber or Ola brought together people who needed car rides and those ready to offer them. Smartphones equipped with GPS, apps and software, make them possible. These services not only make hailing taxis easier, but also raise questions on the need to own a vehicle.

Biometric technologies such as fingerprint and Iris scanning have made personal identification faster and more foolproof. When Aadhar information is linked to bank accounts, speedy and reliable transfer of funds becomes possible. In India, Aadhar-based benefit transfers have already saved huge amounts of public money by preventing diversion of subsidies.

Aadhar-linked bank accounts and smartphones have made it possible for people to send money to each other without revealing bank account details, through a United Payments Interface (UPI). The recent demonetisation move seeks to disrupt India’s slow cash-based economy into a cashless one (Read this article). Internet of Things (IoT) technologies are enabling disruptions in diverse fields like crop irrigation, healthcare, sports, and transportation.

Think beyond boundaries

As seen in the above examples, disruptions happen when existing technologies are brought together to perform tasks in dramatically different ways or to enable tasks which were not thought possible. If you are working towards disruptive innovation, you need to have a grasp of a diverse range of technologies and need to think beyond the boundaries of traditional industry structures.

You must also have the ability to ‘converse’ with experts from different domains and build working teams. You will need to think outside the box.

Basically, you will need to construct in order to disrupt.

My article above, in the series Jargon Jungle, was first published here

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