Does innovation always lead to change?

| February 28, 2013

Public policy expert, Ian McAuley, reflects on the way new technologies can change how we live, work, and study, while examining the implications of disruptive innovation in universities across Australia.

Fifty years ago I was an electronic engineering undergraduate. In the 1960s vacuum tubes still hadn’t fully given way to transistors, and small integrated circuits with eight or ten active components were state of the art.

Our academic week generally finished on a Friday afternoon at the Queen’s Head Hotel in North Adelaide, where discussion would turn to speculation about the path of information technologies.

Had a visitor from 2013 joined our drinking session, and told us about the continued development in speed and compactness of hardware, we would not have been surprised. Moore’s Law was already established. Nor would developments such as E-mail, online financial transactions, or high speed transmission of graphic data have been beyond our comprehension. After all, Peter Drucker was already raising the possibility of magazines migrating to an online format.

But had our visitor tried to explain Facebook or Twitter, we would have been incredulous, and would have asked him or her to share whatever recreational substance was leading to such absurd twaddle.

New technologies often have two distinct phases. In the first phase we use new technologies to do what we have always done, but do it more efficiently. It’s not difficult for engineers and others familiar with technology to make reasonable predictions about these developments.

But the second phase, consequent on the first, may involve major social and organisational changes, which are much harder to predict. The automobile, for example, was not just a convenient means of transport; it also changed our patterns of settlement and social relationships. Electrification has had effects ranging from improved literacy in poor communities, through to releasing women from housework and subsequently changing a whole set of economic and social relationships.

This second phase is often known as “disruptive innovation” – disruptive because it changes the social order and can see established markets, and the businesses which supply them wiped out.

Universities, like most knowledge-based institutions, have been enthusiastic in their uptake of information and communication technologies for teaching. There are sophisticated software packages designed to improve the productivity of teachers and students. For example, students submit assignments electronically, and lecturers use proprietary programs to check for plagiarism. Distance learning becomes easier and, should the NBN survive, we can expect a lot more tutorials gathering together people who only rarely meet one another.

But these packages are generally built around universities’ traditional models – lectures, tutorials, submitted written assignments, and occasional one-on-one consultations. In fact they involve such a large investment that they tend, if anything, to lock in traditional systems. There are cases where innovators experimenting with new teaching models had to abandon their experiments and conform to the new software systems once they were introduced campus-wide. In universities, as elsewhere, path dependence can stifle innovation.

In his blog, Steven Schwartz of Macquarie University has reminded us of how innovators break out of established patterns. He says, “Instead of trying to get students to change, they have adapted their teaching methods to the way students behave”.

This is the pattern of thinking that goes beyond productivity improvement and accepts the challenge of disruptive innovation.

Where does such disruptive innovation lead? It would be folly for me, or anyone else, to make such predictions or even imaginative speculations. And even if I had that foresight, readers would probably ask me what recreational substance I’m taking.