“Disruptions” in Technology?

Contemporary buzz words abound, especially that of “disruption” or “disruptive innovation” in information technology. The supposed disruption is covered widely in the popular and trade media, technology conferences, and, naturally, the blogosphere.* Like all buzz words, though, have we lost the meaning, or even worse, the spirit of what we’re trying to discuss?

We are quick to laud the leaps and bounds we’ve made; indeed, in just a decade, our lives are quite different thanks to a countless array of technologies. From social media to smartphones, from texting to handheld videoconferencing, it is easy to say we’ve come a long way. And, we have. But let’s take an unflinching look at some of the larger problems of our world within context. Are we any closer to solving the fundamental problem of clean drinking water for a significant portion of the world’s population? What progress have we made toward sustainable food sources, treating rampant and unrelenting diseases, and spreading peace? I am not arguing that some of our best minds have not made solid progress toward these massive problems; rather, I would like to argue that we are quick to use a word like disruption in technology, when in reality, we are plodding along nicely.

There seems to be two different types of innovation, and perhaps two different types of innovators. The latter is more fun to describe. The first kind of innovator is more common: he/she is able to deftly examine the current status of technology, identify problems or possible improvements, and then execute a plan to fill the gap, as it were. Many of our current technologies fit just this very description, and are, therefore plodding along nicely. The second type of innovator is a far rarer breed: this person is able, somehow, to summon the heavens and think beyond where we are today. This person possesses the technical skill, the fortified stomach, and the creative insight to breathe life into an unforeseen possibility.

The way “disruption” and “disruptive innovation” are discussed today celebrates the first type of person. But what, really, is disruption? If we’re going to say it’s a fundamental shift, an irrevocable future trajectory, and a realignment of worldviews, we need to be the ones who look beyond. Perhaps disruption ought to be to celebrate this rarer second type of innovator. Should we cultivate this radically independent thinker who really stands the possibility of altering the future? I suggest that instead of dispensing with the term “disruptive,” we really ought to dial up the terminology to include the generative spirit of radical thinking.


*See, for example, Downes, Larry and Paul F. Nunes, Big-Bang Disruption, Harvard Business Review, March 2013 or The Economist’s Agent of Change: The Future of Technology Disruption in Business.

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