INNOVATION AND SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION

1. The law of diffusion of innovations

Simon Sinek and other speakers professing the culture of change often refer to the law of diffusion of innovations. It is a theory popularized by Everett Rogers, a professor of communication studies, that pertains to how new technology or ideas can spread and grow within a civilization or culture. This is a bit a like water seeping through a sponge, and I like to think of it as the law of percolation of innovations, because it is a slow and tortuous process.

Diffusion of Innovation by Everett Rogers, First written in 1962. The 5th edition is dated 2003.

Diffusion of Innovation by Everett Rogers, First written in 1962. The 5th edition is dated 2003.

The transformation of society is a spontaneous human process. It can be slow or non-existent as in the middle ages, it can be brutal as with revolutions and wars, and it can be progressive, as it is today. Its speed is variable.

The innovation percolation process is intrinsically a behavioral modification process, as an innovation has to be “adopted”.

Combining those two processes, it is possible that the innovative product at the origin of the diffusion process transforms into a different product at the end of the process as society has changed its habits and the way it uses products. Thus when the laggards finally get to the innovation, it can be significantly different than when the innovators first adopted it.

Yes, here I should mention that according to Everett Rogers, there are 5 categories of people involved in the diffusion of innovation:

  1. Innovators,
  2. Early adopters,
  3. Early majority,
  4. Late majority,
  5. Laggards.

2. Innovation within social change

No difference in function between these two Ford cars having more than 100 years of technological differences.

No difference in function between these two Ford cars having more than 100 years of technological differences.

In 1962 when Rogers first wrote the book, the examples where reasonably technologically stable like the automobile, the refrigerator or the landline telephone. Automobiles for example were phased in progressively to replaced horse drawn carriages. Before the automobile, roadways didn’t have gas stations but hostels with stables to rest the horses. As the automobile gained in popularity, society shifted with investments in gas stations. Since the cars didn’t need long rest periods, and since they moved faster, greater distances could be done in one day. Shift in urban concentrations, denser road system, and superhighways created shifts in habits, brought about by the automobile.

This shift however was slow and didn’t come until after the maturity of the automobile itself in the 50´s and 60’s. Furthermore, though more sophisticated, the function on general layout of the automobile didn’t change. A Ford model T of 1910 and a Ford Taurus of 2010 are filling the same function in society. These shifts represent changes in society. They do not represent transformation.

3. Innovation within social transformation

But today, society is really transforming, and the percolation process gives rise to changes so great throughout its diffusion times that the end product and the beginning product cannot really be compared.

This can be illustrated by the diffusion of the cell phone. I recall back in 1988, I was in Singapore on a vacation, visiting a high school friend. He was part of a wealthy family and had the first cell phone I could actually touch and use. Yes, my mother could hardly believe me when I told where I was calling from!

Franck Piccard     of France talks on his mobile phone after the Mens Super G Salomon event at the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary, Canada. Piccard won the gold medal with a time of 1:39.66 minutes.

Franck Piccard of France talks on his mobile phone after the Mens Super G Salomon event at the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary, Canada. Piccard won the gold medal with a time of 1:39.66 minutes.

Singapore was, and still is, a very dynamic island country, with state of the art technology. The country is small and with a good level of resources and so was able to be one of the first countries with access to cell phone technology. The socio-economic and geographic situations of Singapore made it a good candidate for investing in a cellular telephone network back then. My friend was the early adopter to early majority type and that was sufficient for him to put one of these beauties on his personal shopping list. That phone could do one thing: Make a telephone call. If it had stayed that way, it would have most likely stayed a niche market. As such, the technology would have remained expensive wouldn’t have become as widespread as it is today.

Two other technology steps had to be taken for the cell phone to conquer the world:

Same name, different functions: The 2014 phone is a personal computer with apps, GPS, Camera, Internet, mail.... only a quarter a century after the breakthrough model.

Same name, different functions: The 2014 phone is a personal computer with apps, GPS, Camera, Internet, mail.... only a quarter a century after the breakthrough model.

1- True portability.

The phone that we take everywhere. It was necessary to reduce the phones size and weight, as well as to increase battery life, for the idea to make sense to the majority. We all want to be wanted, and therefore hate the idea of missing an opportunity to link with our friends and colleagues. True portability means we wouldn’t miss calls, and that those we needed could respond to our needs faster.

2- Do more than just call.

The second breakthrough came about with the sms, mms + photo evolution. The idea that you could send text and photos was the next breakthrough. A cell phone could do more than the landline! And as such slowly became useful to the late majority people.

3- Smart Phones.

As it was with the 3 musketeers who were 4, the two technological steps are 3. This generation of telephones should not even have the RIGHT to use the name “phone”: Apps, Internet, GPS, personal assistant, camera, video… everything short of making coffee. They are mini computers with more power than IBMs of yesterday and are creating a lifestyle revolution in a big way.

4. Conclusion

One can argue that technology is creating the transformation in society, or that the transformation in society is creating the technology. Whatever it may be, it is an interwoven process the progresses at an increasingly fast pace. Thus changes in product is driven by two distinct and interwoven laws:

  1. The law of diffusion of innovation which takes place slow rate,
  2. The transformation of society.

It is interesting to note that today’s social organization process, with its complex political and judiciary system, its commercial organizations and NGO’s, has the agility and wisdom to evolve and accommodate the desires of its constituents quick changes in a relatively short. At times private companies and corporations have much more difficulty doing so!