5.1 Waves of change?
If you take the time to read the fairly wide range of literature devoted to examining and analysing technology and technological change – or specific examples of it – it is unlikely that you will not, at some point, come across a discussion of ‘technological paradigms’ or, alternatively, ‘technological revolutions’. We have previously mentioned in Section 2 the work of Schumpeter (1934), who made the observation that technological innovations appear to emerge in clusters over time. If you are familiar with economics you may also have come across the term ‘Kondratieff cycles’ (named after a Russian economist) or ‘long waves’. Kondratieff posited that each cycle lasted on average 50 years and was
based upon technological innovations that bundle together in a particular place and time to set the stage for steady development and diffusion outwards until a new bundle of innovations comes along and supersedes the first.
Each paradigmatic period, or wave, is marked out by the features described in Table 2. Note that the beginning and end dates for the periods do not signal that at that point the particular key carriers and key industries disappear or even cease being important. Clearly railways and canals developed in the 18th and 19th centuries still exist, and are to a greater or lesser degree still important economic (and social) assets in many countries. Similarly, Fordist mass production still maintains its importance, although the technologies that underpin it have, in many industries, changed radically. The important point is that during each period there are key industries and ‘carrier’ sectors which are then superseded as the key industries/carriers over time. The timing and speed of this change may vary, of course, from location to location.
Furthermore, despite the impression that the elements of Table 2 might give, these developments are not solely determined by technology and technological development, as Castells (1996) notes ‘many factors, including individual inventiveness and entrepreneurialism, intervene in the process of scientific discovery, technological innovation, and social applications, so that the final outcome depends on a complex pattern of interaction.’ He continues:
Thus, when in the 1970s a new technological paradigm, organised around information technology, came to be constituted, mainly in the United States, it was specific segments of American society, in interaction with the global economy and geopolitics, that materialised into a new way of producing, communicating, managing, and living.
|Dates||Description||Key ‘carrier’ sectors|
|1770s –1840s||Early mechanisation|
|1840s –1890s||Steam power and railways|
|1890s–1950s/60s||Electrical and heavy engineering|
Electrical and heavy engineering
|1920s –1990s||Fordist mass production|
|1970s –?||Information and communication technology|
|2000s –?||Life sciences|
As you will note from Table 2 and the quotation from Castells (1996), the ICT paradigm was, therefore, the fifth wave – or techno-economic paradigm. There is, however, an increasing belief that we have already – or are on the cusp of entering – a sixth wave based around the life sciences (Dodgson et al., 2008). To what extent, where and how rapidly the key industries and carriers of the sixth wave supplant those of the fifth is something we can observe as we move further into the 21st century.