What is disruptive technology?
The term ’disruptive technology’ is often framed in glowing terms, along with utopian promises from a market-centred ‘Silicon Valley’ perspective. Under this lens, disruptive technology is about upending existing business models and power structures, with the suggestion that this disruption benefits people’s lives. When considered in terms of society and governance, however, we must observe the effects of disruptions on our daily lives and challenge the assumption that they are ‘good’ – have disruptions like Uber and ‘smart cities’ really made life better in our cities? Or do such disruptions only further condense power in new hands, while exacerbating old issues (like inequality) and creating new ones (like privacy infringement)?
‘Disruptive technology’ is credited as being coined in 1995 in the Harvard Business review. The original authors revisited ‘disruptive technology’ 20 years later and describe this traditional understanding of the term:
“‘Disruption’ describes a process whereby a smaller company with fewer resources is able to successfully challenge established incumbent businesses...Entrants then move upmarket, delivering the performance that incumbents’ mainstream customers require, while preserving the advantages that drove their early success. When mainstream customers start adopting the entrants’ offerings in volume, disruption has occurred” (Christensen, Raynor, and McDonald).
It is important to note the limits of this perspective: Firstly, ‘technology’ excludes disruptions from being related to natural phenomena (e.g. a pandemic), methods (e.g. co-creation), laws (e.g. GDPR), or any other non-technical phenomena that disrupt. Secondly, the conventional view of ‘disruptive technology’ places a biased weight on economic impact, while largely ignoring disruptions which are socially disruptive, environmentally disruptive, politically disruptive, or otherwise. Thirdly, the term ‘disruptive innovation’ carries a connotation of being groundbreaking or life changing. In reality, however, applications of so-called disruptive technology often make incremental shifts and can serve to uncover the problems, limits, or unrevolutionary character of a more generally disruptive trend.
“The term “disruptive innovation” is misleading when it is used to refer to a product or service at one fixed point, rather than to the evolution of that product or service over time...Most every innovation—disruptive or not—begins life as a small-scale experiment” (Christensen, Raynor, and McDonald)
Our report on Case Studies for Participatory Mobility considers disruptions and disruptive innovation generally, not as disruptive technology alone. Disruptions are considered for their impact on a wide range of factors. A given disruption will have certain general characteristics but vary in how it is actually applied. These applications take the form of pilots, initiatives, or experiments and provide the main source of information in this report as case studies.
This is an extract of our report on Case Studies for Participatory Mobility. You can read our research via this link: https://casestudies.urbanite-project.eu/
Reference: Christensen, Raynor, and McDonald (2015). What is Disruptive Innovation? The Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2015/12/what-is-disruptive-innovation