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Invention and innovation: An introduction
Invention and innovation: An introduction

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5.11 Sustaining innovation and disruptive innovation

As it's sometimes difficult to say whether a particular innovation is radical or incremental, a useful distinction made recently is between sustaining innovations and those that are disruptive. You'll read more about these ideas in Part 3.

Briefly, a sustaining innovation is a new or improved product that meets the needs of most current customers and serves to sustain leading firms in their market position. So in this context improvements to gas lighting, say, would be sustaining innovations.

By contrast, a disruptive innovation is a new or improved product or technology that challenges existing companies to ignore or embrace technical change.

Often new companies emerge to exploit a disruptive innovation. Such innovations can seem unpromising in the early stages of their development. However if they go on to become successful they can form new markets in which established companies lose their market leadership. Edison's electric light led to the creation of a whole new system for the generation and supply of electricity and its conversion into lighting. This in turn required a whole infrastructure of companies to supply raw materials and components for what became a new industry. It had a disruptive effect on the existing market for lighting.