So… what changes faster, technology or people?  And does it matter?

It’s a relatively well accepted truism these days that the pace of technological innovation is increasing.  Access to ever increasing levels of computing power, innovative and easy to use design tools, and techniques such as crowdsourcing means that ideas can be brought to market more quickly and easily than ever.  But does this mean that people – and society – are equipped to deal with these innovations?  And what if the innovations are disruptive in nature?

In general terms, technological innovation advances faster than the social fabric needed to support it.  Traditional innovation adoption models capture this in the idea of innovators and early adopters, who will take up a new technology well before the large majority of the population.  This process reflects the fact that technologies are both social and technical in nature.  This can be seen with more complex technologies, where there needs to be a certain level of knowledge relating to a technological innovation before it can be widely adopted.  More broadly, the social infrastructure needed to support an innovation can extend beyond knowledge to norms and values, or expectations about what technologies represent legitimate innovations within society. Innovators and early adopters tend to be socially aligned with newly introduced innovations, and are more likely to adopt them early in their lifecycle as a result.

A good example of this is Google Glass.  This innovation could transform the way that people relate to the word through the implementation of augmented reality in daily life.  But Google Glass is both embraced and rejected at the same time, as people who have norms and expectations consistent with the innovation adopt it, and those that don’t shy away.  Despite the obvious innovation involved with Google Glass, the social evolution required to ensure its widespread success is yet to be realised.

When the innovation is radical in nature (and arguably Google Glass is), then the timeframe from introduction to widespread adoption can be quite long.  When the innovation is disruptive in nature, then the problem can be multiplied as not only do people need to understand the technical aspects of the innovation, but they may need to significantly adapt their norms and expectations before adoption can proceed. This is because disruptive innovations tend to displace the prior technology as well as the social fabric that surrounded them, which is no mean feat.  And they may fail on one or both dimensions, becoming innovations that were ‘before their time’, consigned to the dustbin of innovation history.

The take away from this is that when considering the potential for an innovation, both the technical and the social impacts need to be considered.  Technical prowess – which is often the focus of the enthusiastic innovator – is only one driving force for the adoption of an innovation.  Social change can be a powerful ally or a powerful foe in the quest for innovation adoption.  A careful examination of the social as well as the technical can therefore go a long way to developing better strategies for the adoption of disruptive technological innovations.

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