Un-orthodox: getting to a new ‘right’

recordsUnorthodox [uhn-awr-thuh-doks]: adjective meaning not conforming to rules, traditions, or modes of conduct, as of a doctrine, religion, or philosophy; not orthodox: an unorthodox ideology.

I’ve been giving some thought to the matter of technological change recently, and more specifically some of the things that help or hinder that change.  One of the things that strikes me about this type of change is that many of the barriers are hiding in plain sight, as it were.  That is, we are so familiar with them, that we cease to see them as problems at all.

This problem is nowhere more apparent than in the electricity industry.  Unlike IT, for example, the electricity system has a long history of development that has created ways of thinking about the world.  A consequence of this is that best practice has been codified, and to some extent fossilised into ‘the way we do things here’.

For example, there is an implicit assumption that electricity systems should use alternating and not direct current to take power from the point of generation to the point of consumption.  This assumption comes from the early days of electricity networks, when the long distance transmission of power from large scale, economically efficient plants had to use AC power to reduce losses.  Of course the use of AC power systems has created a whole range of compatible appliances which further entrenches the incumbency of AC power.  But technology has moved on, and we don’t have to transmit power over long distances any more.  None the less we remain rooted in the alternating current paradigm, for better or for worse.

Another, more familiar example to some is the case of the sharing economy.  Companies like Uber are encountering a range of regulatory regimes around the world that aren’t compatible with their business model.  This leads to great wailing and gnashing of teeth, as the incumbents claim that Uber isn’t following the rules, and Uber asserts its ‘right’ to push the old system aside (technological progress is inevitable, right?).

Part of the problem is that technology is evolving faster that the regulatory regimes that took decades, if not centuries to develop.  And in that time, regulations (as well as other thought patterns) have become so embedded in people’s thinking, that they don’t think about them at all!  Arguments between technology boosters and the old regime then become akin to arguments that pit articles of faith against arguments based on logic.  The end result is conflict that can take some time to resolve.

The idea that differing world views created barriers to technological change is a relatively well established concept, but it can be relatively difficult to express simply (although as Einstein said, if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough!).  However, I had a small eureka  moment recently when I realised that the whole idea is captured in the more familiar idea of ‘orthodox’.

As suggested at the top of this post, orthodox implies accepted rules, traditions and ‘modes of conduct’.  So an orthodoxy defines (or reflects) a standard away of thinking that has evolved over time – that’s the ‘tradition’ part of the definition.  But the origins of the word are even more revealing, as its Greek origins means “having the right opinion“.

And there are lots and lots of orthodoxies around technology.  AC power in electricity networks.  Expected range in electric cars.  Licencing in taxi cabs.  Screen size in mobile phones.  You name a technology, and chances are there’s an orthodoxy – or rules, traditions and modes of conduct – that surrounds it.  The older the technology, the stronger the orthodoxy.

A key barrier to technological change is orthodoxies, because you may need to change the orthodoxy before a technology is adopted and that’s a very difficult thing to do.  Many technological innovations are unorthodox, almost by definition, as innovation involves newness and change.  Truly radical innovations are also truly unorthodox in both a technical and social sense.  In fact, this is largely what disruptive innovations are – successful radical innovations that drive technological and social change.

So it’s worth keeping the concept of unorthodox in mind when you think about technological change, particularly if you’re trying to produce that change through innovation.  The ‘rules, traditions, or modes of conduct’ that evolve with technologies can be powerful barriers to change.  That doesn’t mean that change can’t occur – it just means that you need to overcome the orthodoxy, as well as the incumbent technology if you’re going to be successful.  Just ask the good people over at Uber.