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T890_1: Technology innovation and innovation processes

Unit 1: Technology innovation and innovation processes

This unit introduces you to what innovation is and the processes by which it happens. It provides an interdisciplinary approach and considers innovation processes and the way thinking about innovation processes has changed over time. You will be asked to read five articles in this unit to underpin and extend your learning around technology innovation.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this unit, you should be able to:

  • understand models of innovation and research approaches used in innovation and design studies

  • be familiar with the key debates in these areas, for example, regarding the appropriateness of models, problems of coordinating design inputs, how to organise the design and development of new technologies.

1 The innovation process

We begin by asking you to read a very engaging article by Ernest Taylor that provides a historical perspective on how technology innovation happens called ‘Invention and Innovation.’ It covers a lot of historical ground and is rich in detail about invention and innovation, but most importantly, it provides working meanings of key concepts that compose a conceptual framework for our field of study;

  • invention
  • design
  • product champion
  • entrepreneur
  • innovation
  • radical innovation
  • incremental innovation
  • dominant design
  • progress innovation
  • diffusion
  • patent.

Activity 1

Please read Ernest Taylor, ‘Invention and innovation,’ (1996), pp. 4-38 (using the pages numbers at the bottom of the page).

Make notes on the definitions of the key concepts above and answer the SAQs 1-4 on p.39 of the reading. Please ignore references to other material in this reading which you are not being asked to read.

Question 1

Given the definitions at the start of this page, would you classify the following as an invention or an innovation?

  1. Bic ball-point pen.
  2. Flettner’s ‘rotor ship.’
  3. Carlson’s patented electro-static copier.
  4. Xerox’s 914 photocopier.
  1. BIC ball-point pen is an example of innovation.
  2. Flettner’s ‘rotor ship’ is an example of invention.
  3. Carlson’s patented electro-static copier is an example of invention.
  4. Xerox’s 914 photocopier is an example of innovation.

Question 2

Would you classify the following as examples of radical innovation or incremental innovation?

  1. Edison’s phonograph.
  2. The laser.
  3. The fibre-tip pen.
  4. The electric light.
  1. Edison’s phonograph is an example of incremental innovation.
  2. The laser is an example of incremental innovation.
  3. The fibre-tip pen is an example of radical innovation.
  4. The electric light is an example of incremental innovation.

Question 3

Do you think the following are inventors, entrepreneurs or product champions?

  1. Thomas Edison.
  2. Battelle Memorial Institute (photocopier).
  3. Bette Nesmigh Graham.
  4. Henry Villard (electric light).
  1. Entrepreneur, as it was necessary to back his innovative judgement with his own money, and also to persuade others to invest by becoming a product champion for his own inventions.
  2. Product champion, albeit at an institutional level. Without its support, Carlson might never have developed the photocopier beyond the prototype stage.
  3. Inventor-entrepreneur. Having failed to interest IBM in her ‘liquid paper’ she had to finance manufacture for herself.
  4. Product champion. Although not working within an organisation, by getting Edison to fit out the steamship Columbia for the first full-scale trial of the electric light, Villard helped to draw attention to the invention about which he felt so enthusiastic, thus contributing to its eventual success.

Question 4

What are the six key components of a successful innovation process identified above?

  1. the Need/Demand for a new or improved product or process.
  2. the inventive Idea for a new product or a new way to make something.
  3. the Technology to turn an inventive idea into an innovation on the market.
  4. the Money and Resources to help transform an invention into an innovation.
  5. the Determination to support the invention and overcome any obstacles.
  6. a Socio-economic context which encourages and rewards innovation.

The second reading, The Innovation Process, is also by Taylor and it is a good introduction to the general field of innovation and design studies. The Innovation Process is about understanding and analysing how invention and innovation arises. The reading begins with two simple and opposing views of how inventions arise, the evolutionary and the revolutionary, and makes the simple, but important point that the best explanation is usually to be found somewhere between the two. Taylor then goes on to use a stage model of invention based on four key steps by Usher; perception of the problem, setting the stage, act of insight and critical revision. Simple stage models like Usher’s are often used in innovation and design studies. They reflect an empirical approach to studying a subject, whereby linked processes are identified. They may be used to explain how an outcome arises or can be used as a tool to manage a desired outcome.

Taylor also explores other models for understanding the process of innovation, such as the technology push and market pull models, and again sees innovation as emerging from somewhere along a spectrum with Push/Pull at polar ends.

Activity 2

Work your way from the beginning (page 40, as numbered at the bottom of the page) of the reading ‘The Innovation Process’ to, and including, SAQ 13 on page 57.

Important: Miss out the section from SAQ5 on page 55 and start again at the final paragraph on page 56 (“Although it is true….”). This is because it refers to a reading you do not have.

Answer the following questions;

Question 5

Using Usher’s stage model as an organising device, demonstrate how Archimedes ‘Eureka’ discovery fits the model (you will have insufficient information to address the last stage).

Question 6

Which of the following innovations would you describe as predominantly arising from ‘technology push’ and which from ‘market pull’?

  • (i) Post it note
  • (ii) Motor vehicle
  • (iii) Car air bag
  • (iv) Sony Walkman

Question 7

  • Invention is the Mother of Necessity.
  • Necessity is the Mother of Invention.


Question 5

  • Perception of the problem-King Hiero II, the ruler of Syracuse, suspected that the goldsmith who had made his new crown had cheated him, substituting a gold-silver alloy for pure gold. But he had no way of proving it.
  • Setting the stage- Archimedes, a Syracusian mathematician, was asked to explore the problem. Archimedes knew that silver is less dense than gold, and therefore that were the crown to contain silver it would be bulkier than if made solely from gold.
  • Act of insight- Archimedes realised as he lowered himself into the bath that there is a relationship between his mass and the volume of water displaced. Achimedes had discovered a principle that allowed him to evaluate whether the crown contained silver. By dividing the mass of the crown by the volume of water displaced, the density of the crown could be calculated. Thus, if the crown contained silver it would be bulkier than if made of pure gold, and therefore would displace more water.

There is no critical revision stage for the purpose of this story. However, the story in the reading is incomplete from a narrative perspective as it doesn’t say whether King Hierro’s suspicions about his goldsmith were correct. The story is that they were, and that the dishonest goldsmith had indeed used some silver in making Hierro’s crown, keeping the gold for himself.

Question 6

  • (i) Post it note- technology push
  • (ii) Motor vehicle-technology push
  • (iii) Car air bag- market pull
  • (iv) Sony Walkman- technology push

Question 7

These are polarised statements and I don’t know how you have answered this question. But I would like you to reflect on whether you favoured one side of the argument over the other, and if so, what in your experience might have influenced you.

2 Successful industrial innovation

Following on from Taylor, Roy Rothwell (1992), provides us with a series of successful innovation characteristics which he says were as relevant when they were first identified in the 1970s as they where when he was writing in the 1990s. You will shortly conduct an activity where you can consider the degree to which these success factors are still important today.

These eight characteristics are:

  1. Knowing how to get and where to get knowledge from or an appreciation of the importance of communication. This includes both within a firm and networking between firms
  2. Acknowledging that innovation is a task for all departments and individuals within a company
  3. The importance of project management; effective planning and resource allocation as per objectives
  4. Efficient and high quality production systems
  5. An emphasis on the market and user needs
  6. A good ‘after sales service’ such as the ability to provide spares or customer service support
  7. The importance of key individuals such as product champions or ‘technological gatekeepers’. These are individuals who keep an idea in the spotlight (they ‘champion’ it) until someone else in the company takes an interest in it or those that act as access points for key knowledge and technology needed to develop a new product or process
  8. High quality management and an emphasis on the importance of developing human capital or skilled and energised staff.

We now seek to look at the practice of innovation today within a particular regional context by turning to the first of a number of East African case studies. This case study focuses on agricultural innovation rather than industrial innovation but many of the ideas you have been introduced to are still applicable.

Activity 3

Read the following East African case study which is an example of successful agricultural innovation. Using your notes on the characteristics of success from the Rothwell reading, suggest why this technology innovation was successful.

Micro-irrigation technologies in Africa

KickStart is a not-for-profit international social enterprise that was founded in Kenya in 1991. In the year 2000 KickStart started their Tanzanian programme, while the Mali programme started operation in 2004. Since 1996, KickStart have promoted the Money maker series of treadle pumps through social marketing programmes within Kenya, Tanzania and Mali, but KickStart technologies, especially the Money Maker pumps are sold commercially to 16 African countries. KickStart’s mission is to eradicate poverty by fostering sustainable economic growth and employment in developing countries. It operates more like a business than a not-for-profit organization. It accomplishes its mission by designing, manufacturing and marketing equipment for poor farmers to enable them to establish profitable small-scale enterprises.

The most successful product line is a series of foot-operated manual irrigation pumps. The pumps were initially designed in India but have been adapted for sub-Saharan Africa where farming is the main source of income. Thus, an initial investment of between US$33 to US$95 to purchase a KickStart pump can enable farmers to improve irrigation which can improve yield and increase income. The irrigation pumps illustrate that economic and social sustainability are achieved when people have the means to provide for themselves.

In designing and manufacturing the innovation products aimed at development and poverty eradication, KickStart applies specific principles:

  • “Self-motivated entrepreneurs are the most effective agents of change in economies in Transition
  • Such entrepreneurs are able to raise small amounts of capital ($50-$1000) required to start new micro-enterprises
  • These entrepreneurs have the capacity and skills to manage the day to day affairs of a small business” (Kinanga, n.d.)

In spite of the variety of innovative products, Kickstart like any organization faces challenges when developing and marketing products. These challenges according to Kinanga (n.d.) include:

  • Difficulties in identifying viable new enterprise opportunities (Business choice)
  • Challenges in accessing or developing technologies that are needed for the sorts of enterprises (technology access).

If you want to find out more about Kickstart the following urls have been provided:


It is evident from the case study that some of the characteristics of successful innovation discussed by Rothwell are present. For example, the planning process has been carefully managed, with steady roll out of the technology to different African countries. Thus, while the organisation was founded in Kenya in 1991, the Tanzanian programme did not start until 2000, the Mali programme until 2004. The pumps are now sold in 16 African countries. This suggests that the organisation wanted to learn from the implementation of the technology before transferring the technology to a different context.

Thus, the first pump was able to siphon water from a well or pond to an irrigation furrow. But farmers wanted more targeted delivery of water, and so the technology was further adapted to be channelled through a hosepipe. Similarly, to meet the demands of smaller farmers, a smaller capacity pump was designed which was cheaper to produce and therefore buy. This shows a strong market push orientation, seeking to satisfy user needs. It also demonstrates user segmentation by designing products to meet different user requirements.

The product delivers economic benefits for the farmer, as in an increasingly monetised economy in Kenya, the increased harvest the pump can produce provides a significant boost to family incomes. There is also evidence of technical and production synergies between the different product offerings which suggests cumulative knowledge generation and adaptation to particular contexts e.g. hill farming. Thus, Rothwell’s characteristics are helpful in analysing why this technology innovation was a success. Moreover, many more characteristics may have been present, but the case study is short on detail.

Although this technology innovation was carried out by a not-for-profit organization, KickStart operated like a business, producing a product that was sold rather than gifted. KickStart designed, manufactured and marketed the pump. However, while the pumps were the output, it was expected that their adoption would improve the livelihoods of poor farmers, and thus the technology had specific social outcomes too.

3 Managing design and innovation

Rothwell (1992) talks of his eight characteristics for successful innovation as project execution or tactical variables. He distinguishes these from higher level strategic variables such as a corporate strategy which places innovation as a key priority. Although there could be well-organised innovation projects in firms that lacked a corporate strategy for innovation, it is better to have both. Ideally an innovation strategy should involve a long-term commitment to major projects that address company development.

In the following two readings, the focus is on design and innovation at the project execution level. These readings contain important lessons for how innovation and design is studied and the sorts of understanding sought in research projects. However, they will also show the need for a consideration of the higher-level understanding for this to be successful – for example by picking up Rothwell’s consideration of networking between companies.

I will shortly ask you to read an excerpt from the book Winning by Design (Walsh et. al 1992). This is from a chapter on Organising Design and Innovation. You should note that the reference in this reading to ‘Study B’ is to a survey of the design and development of new products in three UK sectors and successful foreign firms.

Unit 3 will introduce you to the role of organisations and institutions for policy making and technology strategy. But this reading provides some early insight into how the different approaches to the organisation of innovation can be conceptualised. You will work with the Walsh reading in two parts.

Activity 4

Read the extract below from ‘Organising Design and Innovation’ (Walsh et al, 1992).

  1. How does this reading relate to Rothwell’s ‘Characteristics of Successful Innovation’?
  2. What sort of information would you need to obtain from an organisation in order to say what type of project organisation structure they used?


  1. This reading complements the characteristics of success identified by Rothwell which you noted earlier. It adds that the development of new products is influenced by a range of factors including the size of the company, the type of product or service produced, the type of technology used, the company’s history, worker relationships and the abilities of a couple of unique and pivotal senior people.
  2. The three types of product development organisation discussed in the reading are;
    • Sequential; the relay race.
    • Iterative; the volleyball game.
    • Multidisciplinary; the rugby team.
    • Some questions that might be asked to gain insight into the product organisation structure used would be:
    • What is the size of the company?
    • Is the production process compartmentalised, with departments having discrete and different functions?
    • Is organisation within the company informal or highly formalised?

A core assumption in this article (and Rothwell) is an emphasis on product development being about ‘winning’ and ‘competitiveness’. Success is usually measured in terms of outputs from the innovation process. This can be contrasted with the next reading in this unit on the ASTI project, where the emphasis is on how to achieve co-operation and co-ordination in a partnership. Essentially the ASTI measures were on the success of effective inputs, although some outputs were noted.

4 Managing an innovative green design product

The reading Managing the Design of an Innovative Green Transport Project, (Potter, 1999), addresses the problems people face when managing a complicated and innovative project. The ‘ASTI’ case study reported in this reading was one of several that were undertaken as part of a European Commission-funded project to develop a design management tool called Strategic Niche Management (see the Weber et al, 1999, reference in the article). The purpose of this research was to develop a tool for designers. But rather than concentration on the relationship between project tasks, the emphasis is on the relationship between the people and organisations (the ‘actors’) who need to be brought together to undertake an innovative design project.

The Organising Design and Innovation (Walsh et al 1992) reading that you just studied identified a number of problems in developing innovative products. The first part of the 1999 ASTI article notes the even greater challenges facing innovative ‘green’ transport projects. There is great uncertainty as to what sort of technology is most environmentally-benign, whether it will be accepted by users and who might introduce and promote it. Strategic Niche Management was developed in response to problems with previous approaches to Technology Forcing, whereby governments chose a particular technology and financially supported its research and development. Often this resulted in rather poor technologies being supported over better ones. Strategic Niche Management takes a totally different approach. Its purpose is not to pick technological winners, but to establish a framework in which a number of new technologies can develop in protected ‘niches’. The framework is designed to give each technology its best chance of success by providing good and effective design management. When the technology emerges from its initial protected niche project, competition with other technologies will establish winners and losers. This is thus an evolutionary/biological approach, with no preconceived judgements or prior assumptions as to whether any particular technology or system is to be, say, the ‘Transport of the Future’ or not.

There is an important contrast between the thinking underpinning the earlier article ‘Organising Design and Innovation’ (1992) and this ASTI article. The former involved an acceptance of what constituted ‘success’. Success was defined in terms of financial results and speed to market. The approach behind Strategic Niche Management is about how to effectively co-operate, how to develop an understanding relationship with partners and how learning is developed through a project.

Activity 5

Read the article Managing the Design of an Innovative Green Transport Project and answer the following question.

  • What sort of information was gathered in this project?


The information gathered was less on project design, and more on the nature of the relationships of the partnership network, how this was managed and what motivations and benefits were involved for each of the partners.

Further Thoughts on ASTI

ASTI involved a very complicated management task. There was development work on two new vehicle designs, together with innovative trip-matching computer software and vehicle tracking equipment. There were not only technical innovations, but organisational innovations associated with the technical developments. The concept of independent fleet operators pooling their resources in order to improve the service to all their users could involve considerable friction if things went wrong (and possible even if they did not!). This aspect appears to have worked remarkably well.

The project was led by a Social Economy organisation that had a culture of co-operative and partnership working. This raises the interesting point that such organisations may provide lessons to more commercially oriented organisations where concepts of competition dominate and where success is measured purely in financial terms. This resonates with the Kickstart pump case study you studied earlier.

A key aspect was that the ASTI project ended up with a set of partners who all had something to gain from its success. These motivations were in terms of the strategic concerns of the organisations and usually were not necessarily environmental. Even Camden Community Transport’s core motivations were not environmental but linked to its social mission and a recognition of cost effectiveness issues. The integration of parallel accessible services provided by the IT systems developed through ASTI addressed these. Cleaner fuels were almost a side issue, but gained in importance as the project progressed.

This was true for other partners; ASTI was relevant to their core interests - even though their core interests may not have been the same. One exception to this concerned the software development where there was a problem in getting a company on board as nobody saw a CT minibus project as representing an important market. In practice, accessible transport services did have real potential, which until ASTI had been unrealised. Signal Computing have now a good competitive edge in this market.

Furthermore, to some individuals, ASTI was a project that was important to them in terms of building their careers and expertise. ASTI was not ‘just another job to be done’, it was a career move. Thus ASTI related well to both core organisational and individual motivations.

Activity 6

How do you think the partners involved in ASTI would have defined ‘success’?

If you have a proposed dissertation or project topic, would different players define ‘success’ in the same or different ways?


The meaning of ‘success’ has varied significantly between the readings in this unit, and reflects differences in their core rationales. For ASTI, success was defined at a number of levels, including:

  • That a technology worked
  • User satisfaction
  • Partner expectations were achieved (or in some cases grew or were changed)
  • Learning by and between partners

The meaning of ‘success’ was not about the commercial success of the product, although many partners saw ASTI as helping to build up long-term commercial advantage.


This unit has built a conceptual framework around technology policy and innovation for the course. It has looked at the recent history of technological invention and innovation, considered the processes of innovation, and how design and innovation are managed. Through an East African case study, Kickstart, and a green transport project in the UK, ASTI, it has applied learning from the block and broadened understanding of criteria to evaluate the success of technology innovations. This consideration of the meaning of ‘success’ is an appropriate end to this unit because it highlights the different perspectives in researching design and innovation that have been contained in this unit’s readings. The wider meanings of success that have featured in the latter part of this unit move towards the wider policy and societal issues considered in the next unit.


Taylor, Ernest (1996): T302 Innovation Design Environment and Strategy, Block 1 An Introduction to Innovation, Section 1 (pp 4-39) Invention and Innovation, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
Taylor, Ernest (1996): T302 Innovation Design Environment and Strategy, Block 1 An Introduction to Innovation, Section 2 (pp 40-60) The Innovation Process, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
Rothwell, Roy (1992): ‘Successful Industrial Innovation: Critical Factors for the 1990s’, Research and Development Management, Vol. 22, No 3 pp 221-239, Oxford, Blackwall.
Organising Design and Innovation, pp 138-154 of Walsh, Vivien, Roy, Robin, Bruce, Margaret and Potter, Stephen (1992): Winning by Design: technology, product design and international competitiveness, Oxford, Basil Blackwell.
Potter, Stephen (1999): ‘Managing the design of an innovative green transport project’ The Design Journal, Volume 2, Issue 3, pp 51-60, Aldershot, Ashgate.