Technological architectures

An important distinction can be made between architectural innovation and component-level innovation. The architecture defines the way different components or subsystems are organised and how they interact with other components. Often architectures themselves form part of even larger webs of architectures.

Innovations at the component level, which is a physically distinct portion of the technology that embodies a separate design concept, mostly reduce costs of production, and often take place at high frequency with a wide range of choices available. While the organisations that innovate at the component level are more dependent on past experience as well as economies of scale, the organisations that determine the architecture are able to depend far more on their value addition, as well as the sunken investments of many other agents into the system.

To change the architecture of a system requires many simultaneous changes to different sub-architecture and component levels, which may be beneficial to some agents in the system, but not to others (thus vested interests often create a path dependency). A change to the architecture could even disrupt industry structure, and it changes the way the markets judge whether a specific architecture is suitable for the function or tasks it fulfils. A combination of path dependency and architectural change can be used to describe why many industries (or architectures) have disappeared.

However, architectures such as the vehicle example in the figure above change slowly over time and can certainly be influenced by improvements at the component level. For instance, better electronic management of the engine may result in less frequent services, but the architecture hardly changes. Interestingly, the architecture of the vehicle also forms part of a wider architecture of road networks and urban designs, again reinforcing another higher level of path dependency. This nested nature of technologies at the level of architectures is what slows down massive technological change. To continue with the example of a car, passenger vehicles depend on the architecture of a road network. It is also dependent on fuel and maintenance systems, parking arrangements, insurance and all kinds of traffic and safety laws.

I find it interesting that two decades ago, electric vehicles were described as being massively disruptive resulting in the demise of the fossil-fuel vehicle. Now, many established car manufacturers have jumped onto the bandwagon and are investing heavily in their own electric vehicle technologies, and in doing so reducing the disruptive effect of alternative fuels. In doing so, they are making massive strides in fuel efficiency, reducing the weight of their cars and substituting harmful and heavy materials with materials that have less impact on the environment. The component and sub-system level innovations offered by electric vehicles are being incorporated into the designs of the older fossil fuel architecture, while the architecture itself is only changing slowly. In South Africa, the network of charging stations and points are slowly expanding, but the use of electric vehicles is still minute compared to the fossil-car usage.

Some examples of architectures and components are computers (architecture) and an internal graphics card (component) or a jet airliner (architecture) and in-air entertainment systems (components).

The reason why I thought it a is a good idea to go back to such a basic distinction as the difference between architectural innovation and component level innovation is that in much of the popular discussion about technological disruption (the fourth industrial revolution-talk) this distinction is not made. What I appreciate about the World Economic Forum is that they are raising awareness of what will happen to social arrangements when one architecture displaces another. But what is not receiving enough attention are the many challenges that we will face in developing countries at the level of sub-systems and components. This is where competitiveness, resilience and innovation are critical because this where the disruptions and discontinuities of industries will occur. This is also the area where developing countries usually follow (as outsourced manufacturers) and where we are the most vulnerable to the design capabilities and dense networks that existing in clusters in the developed world.

I will explore how these changes occur in the next few posts.

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