What is Disruptive Technology and Why Should I Care?

It seems everyone these days is talking about innovation or the lack thereof. Although I was never exactly sure what it meant, the latest buzz phrase seems to be “disruptive innovation”.

This past week, amidst the chatter surrounding the pending launch of the new iPhone 6 (anticipated to be a smaller version of the iPad mini), I heard a pundit suggest that while the phone may bring new features, it wasn’t likely to be considered disruptive.

Instead, he explained, it was the first iPhone launched in 2007 that would be considered disruptive technology—not because of its attributes as a phone but rather because it provided access to email thereby displacing or disrupting the necessity of laptops.

According to Wikipedia, a disruptive innovation is one that helps create a new value and new markets and ultimately displaces an earlier technology. The term is used to describe innovations that improve a product or service by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, reliability, and affordability, whereas before the product or service may have been complicated, expensive, and inaccessible.

It may be that the iPhone 6 will be better described as a continuous “sustaining innovation” because it isn’t going to create new markets but instead will be more about evolving existing ones to ensure better value.

Ford’s mass production of the lower priced Ford Model T is another way to explain disruptive technology. Cars weren’t disruptive up until then because they were quite expensive. As a result, horses remained the main mode of transport until assembly lines made cars affordable and available to a broader segment of the population.

Why is it important for the average person to understand disruptive innovation?

It’s important because it’s happening faster and more often than it ever has in the history of humankind. That means we all need to get really good at being nimble and able to adapt to rapid changes. For those resistant to change, things could get tough.

It’s hard to ignore the increasing number of examples of disruptive technology that have changed our lives.

One of the first disruptive innovations I recall was the transistor radio. Being battery powered meant we could take our radios with us—thereby disrupting the need for plugged in music.  Apple disrupted that innovation with their iPod and again with iTunes which distributed and monetized music. If the early attempts of tablet PCs were considered as an existing market, Apple also had a major impact with their iPad.

The World Book Encyclopedias my parents scrimped and saved to buy us have now been displaced by Wikipedia. Other technologies such as Skype have replaced telephones which themselves replaced telegraphs. 

There are many disruptive innovations impacting education. Elearning, ebooks, free learning via TED lectures and MIT, customizable modular majors, and year round learning.

Innovative organizations like the Khan Academy are questioning the idea of one size fits all learning and are, with their hundreds of ten minute videos, providing a form of virtual tutoring that makes learning affordable and simple for each and every student.

Disruptive innovation will also need to be applied to addressing social needs to move beyond existing solutions and delivery models that aren’t always as effective as they could be in creating sustainable, systems-changing solutions.

To face the challenges of a constantly changing world, we are all going to need to place a priority on seeing and seizing opportunities, introducing new products, revamping operations, reprioritizing, and creating new models.

We can’t lose sight of the fact that the future is already here, and it’s up to us to focus on innovation not just to improve the bottom line of companies but to help deliver and maximize individual, social, environmental, and economic benefits.

Posted on 08-21-14

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