5.10 Radical innovation and incremental innovation
The electric light might be said to be an example of a radical innovation – a new product, process or system resulting from a technological breakthrough, or an application of a technology having a far-reaching impact.
Radical innovations can have a widespread and sometimes revolutionary impact on our lives and are said by some to account for technological progress. However, as you saw with the example of the telephone, most radical innovations are actually an accumulation of much smaller improvements, often carried out by many different individuals and organisations over time. The notion of the electric light might seem like a radical idea but it was actually the product of an attempt to provide a form of lighting that improved on existing methods. Apart from candles and oil lamps, these were mainly the gas light (increasingly used in urban homes but with an associated fire hazard and impact on air quality) and existing electric arc-lighting (too dazzling for domestic use and suffering from control and maintenance problems).
Furthermore the provision of an effective system of electric lighting depended upon the steady incremental improvement in a range of associated technologies – glass blowing, vacuum pumping, electricity distribution, and so on.
Therefore the application of the label radical innovation depends on the context and the time scale. Radical innovations are often incremental in terms of their scientific and technological development but radical in their application and ultimate impact on society. Also the early, often unreliable, examples of an innovation might not seem to be a significant improvement on existing technology until improvements in performance encourage more people to buy the innovation, which increases its impact.
Can you think of another example of a radical innovation?
I think the passenger aeroplane and man-made fibres used in clothing were radical innovations when they first appeared. They have had an impact on people's lives, for example the aeroplane brought tourism to remote communities.
So an apparently radical innovation actually involves much incremental innovation – technical modifications to an existing product, process or system and sometimes known as evolutionary innovation. The analogy with biological evolution is not precise, however, because technological evolution involves conscious and deliberate choice.
Can you think of an incremental innovation?
There are kitchen utensils sold under the brand name of Good Grips. They are designed to be easy for disabled people to use. I also thought online ticket booking could be considered to be an incremental innovation, although it also has some features of a disruptive innovation.