Innovation diffusion

In the December issue of Technology Review (MIT’s magazine of innovation) was the last column of Michael Schrage. Michael is co-director of the MIT Media Lab‘s E-Markets Initiative and a senior adviser to MIT¹s Security Studies Program.

As he puts it, he started the monthly Technology Review column to "explore the real guts and viscera of the innovation process – not the polite entrepreneurial fictions about how brilliant ideas ultimatly charm the reluctant marketplaces". After three years, Michael’s conclusion is simple, but bright : "innovation isn’t what innovators do ; it’s what customers and clients adopt".

Although Michael does not mention it, I cannot help but think that the internet fits exactly into this approach. What a difference between the DARPA’s original purpose (to secure exchange of information through a computer network) and today’s World Wide Web !

On the failure side, a good example is the WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) ? In 1997, when Unwired Planet, Motorola, Ericsson and Nokia creates the WAP forum, they envisioned millions of users shortly after the introduction. Mobile manufacturers and telecom companies pourred billions to grow WAP services as a mass market. But WAP services were poorly designed, and they never really took off.  It took another three years to fix all the problems and see successful WAP mobile services.

But Michael Schrage’s approach is not valid for human-friendly innovations only. There’s a dark side to innovation, and Michael is unfortunatly right when he claims that "the ability of tiny groups of fanatics to kill large groups of innocents has grown by orders of magnitude over the last fifty years".

Schrage leaves us with a wise conclusion : "The diffusion of innovation is about the diffusion of choice – both good and bad. The more choices you have, the more your values matter".

The column can be read at http://www.technologyreview.com/articles/04/12/mag_toc.asp but you have to be a subscriber). Michael Schrage’s page can be found at http://ebusiness.mit.edu/schrage/.

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