The Bulletin

Four reasons why meaningful, disruptive innovation fails

Posting in Cancer

"Why can't we solve big problems?" asks Jason Pontin in MIT's Technology Review.

Technologist Paul Carr recently described the term disruption as "the faddish Silicon Valley concept which essentially boils down to, "let us do whatever we want, otherwise we’ll bully you on the Internet until you do." (So, answer: we fail because we're self-interested.)

"There is continual disruption in our industry," Buzzfeed's Jonah Peretti writes, "and you are likely to fail if you get complacent or stop evolving." (So, answer: because we stop caring.)

The word is everywhere, but it means less with each passing minute. Is there anyone out there actually trying to, as they like to say in corporate boardrooms, move the needle?

Pontin explores the idea in his lengthy feature, citing four reasons why we fail to, as they like to say in baseball dugouts, swing for the fences. (Can you write about disruption without employing cliches? Certainly, but there are so many invented specifically to speak to this very concept.)

Those are:

  1. We see the big problem and choose not to solve it. Pontin cites NASA's interest in sending human astronauts to Mars, technically and financially possible but politically D.O.A.
  2. The institutions tasked with doing so fail. Pontin cites climate change, a global problem from which no one can escape, and yet no company, industry or nation seems willing to change market rules to address.
  3. The problem calls for different solutions than originally expected. We've got better agricultural technology than ever in history, Pontin writes, but people around the world still starve. Tyranny, not technology, is the issue.
  4. We fail to understand the problem. There's no better example than cancer, which has emerged over decades of research to be an extremely broad family of diseases with no single best cure or treatment.

Disruptive innovation isn't impossible: we saw it occur in the enormous effort coordinated to put a man on the moon. The challenge isn't technology, the markets or a dearth of big ideas, Pontin writes -- rather, it's the coordination of impetus, institutions, technology and understanding.

Photo: NASA flight controllers Charles Duke, Jim Lovell and Fred Haise during the descent of the Apollo 11 lunar module in1969. (NASA)

— By on October 25, 2012, 12:37 AM PST

Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure