Technological change cycles

This is the 3rd post that draws from the research and advisory work I am currently busy with to strengthen South Africa’s technological capability to detect and better respond to discontinuous technological change. The citation information for this post is at the bottom of this post, and a link to the research report that I have copied this from is here.

During the 1980s several scholars[1] recognised that technological change follows a cyclical pattern and several models were put forward to explain the phenomena. These models are still in use today and have been found to be active at different levels of technological change. The broad consensus was that a technological change cycle:

  1. Starts with a technological discontinuity or disruption, followed by a period of unstructured and often chaotic innovation when a new idea or concept is made possible (based on preceding developments). This disruption results in a fluid or turbulent development phase during which many ideas are developed, tried and promoted as the next best thing,
  2. That is followed by an era of ferment from which a dominant design emerges; and
  3. This is followed by an era of incremental change during which the dominant design is elaborated.

This can be illustrated with the widely recognised Abernathy and Utterback (1978) model with its three phases of change that are illustrated in Figure 2. The three phases are a fluid phase, a transitional phase, and a specific phase, and is similar to the cyclical pattern described in the bullet list above. Other scholars used slightly different labels, but the characteristics in the different phases are all more or less the same.

Abernathy and Utterback

Figure 2: The Abernathy-Utterback model of technological change

Source: Abernathy and Utterback (1978)

The rate of innovation is highest during the fluid phase, during which a great deal of experimentation with product features and operational characteristics takes place between different competitors[2]. Because of all the changes in the product composition and characteristics, process innovation typically lags. Buyers and users are often confused or overwhelmed during this phase fearing that the benefits are overstated and that the costs of adaptation are uncertain. Only the brave and the innovative engage in finding, adapting and integrating new ideas and concepts.

In the transitional phase, the rate of product innovation slows down and the rate of process innovation increases. At this point, product variety gives way to standard designs that have either proven themselves in the market, or that are shaped by regulations, standards or legal constraints. The pace of innovation of how to produce the product increases. What was done earlier by highly skilled technicians may become automated or developed to a point when low-skilled operators can take over. Or lower-skills jobs are displaced from the production process to other functions like logistics, while the skills intensity on the production line is enhanced. At this point it is easier for bystanders and followers to engage in exploration. The early adopters are already over the horizon, while many early adopters have exited, sold out or moved on.

The final phase, the specific phase, is when the rate of major innovation dwindles for both product and process innovation. In this phase, the focus is on cost, volume, and capacity. Most innovations are very small incremental steps, improvements on what is already known and accepted. Latecomers can now engage with the technology, although it might already be too late.

The description of technological change provided above follows the generic three-step process of technology evolution: a process of variety creation, selection, and then amplification or retention.

  • During the variety creation phase there are many competing designs and no dominant logic. Towards the end of this phase a few dominant designs may emerge, but there is still much competition between ideas. This is not only a technical selection process, there are important social, political and industrial adjustments taking place at the same time.
  • During the selection phase, standards emerge for positively selected ideas, with a few designs dominating. It is a relatively stable process of incremental improvements in features, performance and results. This may be interrupted occasionally by leaps in performance as some designs are substituted by better technologies, or from breakthroughs often coming from other industries or contexts. In general, designs become simpler as a learning process unfolds about how best to design, manufacture, distribute and use a particular technology around dominant designs. This period is characterised by growing interdependence as modules are developed, substituted and standardised. There is a growing exchange and increased competence within and between different communities of practitioners. Often there is industry consolidation during this phase. It is important to note the dominant designs are only visible in retrospect. They reduce variation, and in turn, uncertainty, but within the process it is hard to predict which designs will survive the next set of radical innovations. Once a design becomes an industry standard it becomes hard to dislodge.
  • This leads to an amplification phase, in which the best ideas are not necessarily used as intended, but when technological changes spill over into areas not originally intended. This is a relatively stable process that can continue for long periods, until is it suddenly interrupted by a radically different idea, resulting in the process starting all over again.

Anderson and Tushman (1990) state that, from the perspective of the sociology of technology, technological change can be modelled as evolving through long periods of incremental change punctuated by revolutionary breakthroughs[3]. The innovation activities that take place that lead to these phenomena will be discussed in Chapter 3.

Arthur (2009:163) contends that change within technological domains is a slow process. He explains technology domains do not develop like individual technologies like a jet engine: focused, concentrated and rational. It is rather more like the development of legal codes: slow, organic and cumulative. With technology domains, what comes into being is not a new device or method, but a new vocabulary for expression, similar to a new language for creating and combining new functionalities.

A current example is the “Internet of things”, where the connectivity of physical devices are spreading from the office and smartphone devices to interconnect household appliances, industrial applications and an endless list of technologies enabling data exchange, control and new functionalities . It could be argued that this is not a new technology, digital sensors have been around for a long time, our cars, smartphones and equipment have contained them for a long time. However, the language, standards, distributed nature of processing, and developments in big data visualisation have all contributed to this technology appearing to arise from obscurity into the limelight of the popular media. A similar argument could be made for artificial intelligence, drone technology and others.


[1] The work of Tushman and Anderson (1986), Abernathy and Utterback (1978) are still frequently cited today.

[2] Kuhn (1962) noted that in the early stages of research in a given field, the most that scholars typically can do is to report the phenomena they observe, without a unifying theory or framework to help them categorise or make sense of what they see. As a result, this stage of knowledge accumulation is characterised by confusion and contradiction. Theories are put forward but reports of deviating phenomena accumulate.

[3] This is often referred to as punctuated equilibrium by political scientists.



Abernathy, W.J. and Utterback, J.M. 1978.  Patterns of Industrial Innovation. Technology Review, Vol. 80No. 7 (June/July 1978) pp. 40-47.

Anderson, P. and Tushman, M.L. 1990.  Technological Discontinuities and Dominant Designs: A Cyclical Model of Technological Change. Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 35No. 4 (Dec 1990) pp. 604-633.

Arthur, W.B. 2009.  The nature of technology : what it is and how it evolves. New York: Free Press.

Kuhn, T.S. 1962.  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.

Tushman, M.L. and Anderson, P. 1986.  Technological Discontinuities and Organizational Environments. Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 31No. 3 pp. 439-465.


Citation for this text:

(TIPS, 2018:12-13)

TIPS. 2018. Framing the concepts that underpin discontinuous technological change, technological capability and absorptive capacity. Eds, Levin, Saul and Cunningham, Shawn.  1/4, Pretoria: Trade and Industry Policy Strategy (TIPS) and behalf of the Department of Trade and Industry, South Africa. DOWNLOAD



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.

Becoming better at tracking how technologies change over time

The subject of how technologies evolve over time have been receiving a lot of attention over the last 40 years. Actually, much of the research work done in the late 80s and 90s are still relevant today. With all the talk of the fourth industrial revolution, the attention has shifted towards innovations coming from elsewhere away from what do we have to do in our own organisation to improve our performance, offer our clients amazing value, and to create the future we want to be part of.

I am working with several think tanks, research organisations and policy advisors to help governments and key meso-organisations to become better at tracking technological change and potential disruptions. This work draws on my experience of supporting industry and innovation systems diagnostic processes as well as my experience in supporting organisation development and change.

To be better able to predict technological disruptions meso organisations and policymakers must become much better at anticipating future demands. That means they have to shift from being demand responsive (in other words waiting for the private sector to clearly articulate what they need) to anticipating what is needed. This requires a deep understanding of how user needs are changing (market knowledge), but also of how key technological capabilities in the industries they serve are changing (technological knowledge).

The challenge here in South Africa is that most of the organisations that are supporting innovation and technological change are focused on fixing the past. Due to our countries past, they are trying to get marginalised people (women, the youth, black entrepreneurs) into the mainstream economy. These disadvantaged groups need a lot of support because they are expected to compete against incumbents who have access to capital, suppliers and markets.

This research agenda has three pillars:

  1. Figure out how well South Africa is doing in terms of technological change. Which sectors are changing faster, where is productivity and manufacturing value add improving, and where are we falling behind? This area of research is also about mobilising sector organisations, like industry associations or a whole range of meso organisations supporting the private sector to become better at tracking technological change.
  2. Make the landscape of technological support organisations more visible. These organisations can assist both the private and the public sector to embrace, experiment with or adapt to technological change. A next step would be to make sure that these organisations are incentivised to disseminate technological knowledge and that they are not only measured on how they assist individual enterprises or technology transfer projects.
  3. The third pillar is to improve the dynamism in how public sector organisations work together and collaborate with the private sector to promote industrialisation, upgrading and innovation. This is an essential ingredient to strengthen the countries technological capability, to reduce coordination costs and to foster healthy and pro-active public goods that encourage entrepreneurs to search and discover new economic opportunities.

The current research agenda is not yet comprehensive but for me the synergies between these three pillars are great. It is about technological change, about making sense, about promoting innovation within and between organisations and also about strengthening meso organisations.

How to cultivate a more knowledge-intensive team or organisation

It is interesting to reflect how over my career the organisations I work with have gone from trying to gather additional information from beyond the organisation to trying to make sense of all the information around them. Actually, some people I know are actively disengaging from reading newsletters, books, blog sites or other channels because they are feeling overwhelmed.

My career started in the ICT sector in the early days of connecting companies to the internet. In those days, people wanted to connect to the internet because they wanted to access some additional data, information and communications from far away. They sometimes wanted this internet connection, even if the real benefits of connectivity were fluffy and took years to realise. I shifted to the development sector in the 2000s. By then, many organisations had already started to benefit from this new connection to the information highway. The shift towards web sites, online databases, capturing learning and networks had already begun. In many of the projects I worked on, there were attempts to establish web-based knowledge portals, communities of practice, and online knowledge repositories around a vast assortment of topics. No longer was technical knowledge only available to geeks that could navigate obscure corners of bulletin boards.

Now it seems like organisations and individuals* are drowning in information. (I wonder if one could even argue that information is being reduced to data?). Folders are cluttered with documents – of which some are valuable and others not. Some documents are duplicated several times over on local hard drives, cloud drives and in inboxes. Decision-makers have more information at their disposal than they need, and they often have no idea how to figure out what is relevant or more valuable. Everything seems important, and too much content is collected and never used.

I often talk at events about how information and knowledge are critical for innovation. A culture must be fostered where what is known can be leveraged, thus supporting both continuous knowledge development and innovation. At these events, I am often told by participants that their organisations don’t have all the knowledge they need to innovate. What they need is not at their fingertips. Some express that it is crazy to propose that they start with becoming more sensitive about what they know and how they organise themselves around the knowledge they create and depend on daily. Some even claim they are not working in knowledge-intensive workplaces because people are not willing to write up what they are thinking or doing! I don’t think it is so much about documenting everything anymore. I still make for the exit when I am told that I must write up “best practices” or “lessons learnt”!

However, making better sense of what is known, and what is not understood, are critical — both for individuals and collectives. The search for complementary or necessary knowledge takes place both internally and externally. Internally, knowledge management is about continuously reflecting on what is already known by the organisation or team. It is about figuring out what to document, or what to keep in mind, or what to consider next time. Or it is about figuring out how to use what is already discovered to improve, products, services, processes and structures. Knowledge management is increasingly about being more sensitive to weak signals, responsive to new patterns and alert to odd findings. Over time, knowledge management is becoming a more distributed function as organisations become more knowledge-intensive. More and more people are somehow collecting, processing, adapting and synthesising knowledge.

The external focus of knowledge management is about tracking emerging knowledge or discovering new patterns or supplementary knowledge beyond the organisation or team. It is mainly about exploring what others already know and had the time and energy to document, or to track important developments in other domains and bringing the relevant ideas to the attention of the organisation.

To fill in the internal knowledge gaps from the outside, your team must become better at knowing what you know. This is of course only useful if you can turn what you know into value for others. If you are enabling knowledge development, you must be sensitive to what the organisation needs in the short and long term, so that information can be sourced timesously and over a time period. Teams must also understand how what they know is valuable and usable within the organisation and by its clients.

What is much harder is to get better at sensing where there are areas where more knowledge is needed, where things are not yet clearly understood or mastered. Many people I know spend a lot of time rediscovering what they already knew, or what their teams already sorted, stored or processed. This (re)discovery wastes a lot of valuable time and mental bandwidth. It often just adds more noise in the form of documents that are easily collected but rarely used or synthesised effectively.

It is easy to test how knowledge-intensive a organisation is. Ask your team where they start when they need to gain access to information they know should be captured somewhere. Do they begin internally, or do they open their browsers and start externally?

In knowledge-intensive organisations, the knowledge search starts internally. That is due to knowledge synthesising taking place and adding value to everything the organisation does. The internal search could begin with looking at data already collected, or with information captured in reports, files, photos or physical documents. Or it can start in more informal spaces, like in Slack, MS Teams or even Whatsapp or asking around in the corridors.

In knowledge-starved environments, the search for new or supplementary knowledge almost always starts on the outside. It begins in a browser or at an online resource. In these organisations, the value of improving how information is collected, organised, synthesised, evaluated is low. The pressure to use what is known, or sensed in innovative ways is also low. Improving how information is organised is simply simply not worth it. Lazy or ill-disciplined team members can undermine knowledge-intensification, because organisations have to keep legacy systems running in parallel to newer systems. For instance, some organisations communicate internally via e-mail, slack and other messaging systems. Documents are both stored in shared systems and are emailed about. This is clumsy and it reduces to ability of teams to build a coherent picture of what is going on, what is important, what needs to be maintained, expanded or deleted.

While permanent connectivity makes it much easier to search externally quickly, the habit of failing to collect, synthesise and create a more customised combination of knowledge also comes with other risks. The person doing the searching is at the mercy of tags developed by others, search rankings influenced by advertising spend, and increasingly a lot of fake news, reports, statistics. We all know that what is captured in the form of explicit knowledge is almost always far behind the curve of context-specific tacit knowledge that is hard to capture. This strategy of external search could work if your clients are less informed than you are. Besides, using search engines to find knowledge is also an art. There is also a lot of luck involved.

However, if clients want synthesised knowledge that fits their context, then organisations have to become better at enabling their own knowledge culture. Is your organisation the go-to place for certain kinds of knowledge? In a knowledge culture, it is not just about the technicalities of the search internally and externally. It is also about evaluating, refining and maintaining what is retained (and how) and how what is kept is organised or retrieved. Making it clear why something is kept or how a module can be used in combination with others is also valuable. If along the way documents are found that are no longer relevant, they are marked as unimportant and moved aside or deleted/archived.

Organisations (and individuals) also need to find a balance between documenting what is known for sure and exploring what is tacit, but not yet ready to be captured in an explicit form. This is where applications like Slack and Microsoft Teams, Trello and others are really valuable.

A knowledge culture values collecting, combining and synthesising information. It thrives on sharing hunches, talking about fears and opportunities. It is not just about proven content and technicalities. It is about:

  • constantly reflecting on what information is valuable,
  • collectively or individually thinking about which ideas, concepts or knowledge modules are used often to support decisions,
  • It is about talking about which concepts are drawn on frequently, and;
  • Exploring where explicitly captured or better-organised knowledge could be valuable for the organisation to draw on in future.

From this base, it is then easy to combine internal knowledge with different external knowledge. For me, starting the search outside is like searching for second-hand knowledge, while the raw material of ideas and insights of the internal organisation are overlooked or undervalued.

When an organisation becomes conscious of the value of their collective wisdom, far more care is taken to identify frequently used materials, modules, processes, tools, patterns, labels, thoughts and proven concepts. It is not just about the habit of collecting, sorting, storing and retrieving. It is also about reflecting on what works, what can be used better, and what kind of conversation or effort is missing. Then it becomes straightforward to combine internal knowledge with external ideas to innovate. If organisations reflect more about what knowledge is valuable and how this knowledge can best be kept alive for future refinement or use, then they will already be on their way to becoming more knowledge-intensive cultures.

*For those that are interested to know more about personal knowledge mastery, I recommend you take a look at the PKM course offered by Harold Jarche.

How my praxis is changing

For many years, my practice was mainly about process consulting, with some research on the side. Because I love reading and theorising, my work always combined operational with conceptual development. I think my most significant value add to my clients was in the informal coaching and decision support I gave them on the side.

Over the years, the commissions I received to mainly do research, conceptual development or decision support work steadily increased. Still, I wanted more, as my programme was still mainly organised around consulting assignments. Then last year it happened. For the first time, research, conceptual development and decision support was my primary source of income. These are longer commissions to figure something out, develop a framework, or synthesise a lot of literature and research.

I get these commissions because my clients are finding value in the topics I am researching, and they are interested in leveraging these insights in their work. So my consulting assignments now become the place of integration, while my self-funded and commissioned research becomes the source of inspiration, ideas and curated content.

At last, I am consulting on the side. Almost all my short term process consulting assignments are now about applying or leveraging my research. My consulting contracts are now about weaving together my research in a way that helps my clients make better decisions and lead healthier and more innovative organisations. What I find rewarding, is that research topics that I struggle to keep apart in my mind, all seem to flow together at my clients. The consulting work is still important, but now my world is increasingly organised around my research interests.

For instance, some of my current research themes are:

  • Strengthening meso organisations, and figuring out how societies create, modify and measure these organisations
  • Establishing technological intelligence in industries, regions and organisations to sense discontinuous technological change Enabling innovation cultures that leverage tacit knowledge Enabling teams to draw on complexity thinking to search and discover for opportunities for systemic change.
  • Developing our systemic insight methodology and tools that enable teams to search and discover for opportunities of systemic change in complex or ambiguous environments.
  • How do societies learn, adapt and develop appropriate physical and social technologies? How does this dissemination happen? Is there really a paradigm shift to a “fourth industrial revolution?” or is this just hype?

I have seven or eight of these themes, with some being more coherent while others are still more disordered.

Now at my clients, these themes weave together in amazing ways:

  • I am helping a ministry of trade and industry to establish a technological change observatory to better anticipate and respond to technological disruption. This assignment combines my exploration in meso organisations, but it also harnesses my work on technological change and measuring change.
  • In another country, I am assisting a newly established think tank in developing a strategy, and in promoting knowledge intensification in the broader economy. This project draws on my work on meso change, but it also draws on my earlier experience in helping teams to conduct and make sense of industrial analysis.
  • In yet another context, I am helping an industry body to make sense of an industry diagnosis that we conducted on their trade members to understand their reality and the dynamics in their industry. This was part of a larger assignment to help a skills development project figure out how it can better support dual vocational education and job creation.

I am enjoying this new balance. It is gratifying to synthesise many loose strands into simple organising frameworks. It draws on my strengths of reading broadly, tinkering with ideas, finding literature from wise scholars on these ideas, and finding ways to make these concepts useful to my clients.

Is the Fourth Industrial Revolution a paradigm shift?

I am excited that the Helvetas Eastern European team asked me to write a blog post for their Mosaic newsletter about the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The blog article and many others can be found here.

Regular readers will know that I am not so convinced of one big revolution; rather that there are many smaller disruptions. In this article, I argue that it is hard to imagine what a paradigm shift would look like. I make six arguments of why there are rather several smaller disruptions taking place. The credit for coming up with the image in the article goes to Zenebe Uraguchi from Helvetas. He is also the person that convinced me to write this article, and who guided me when I felt stuck. Thank you, Zenebe! Take a look at some of Zenebe’s posts on the Inclusive Systems blog of Helvetas.

The second half of the article I wrote is about figuring out which social technologies to develop that are needed to make certain technologies usable or beneficial to societies. Many of these social technologies are cultural or organisational, but there are also many public institutions and public goods that are lacking in developing countries.

To me, it feels that we are still just scratching the surface when it comes to helping the meso organisations of developing countries cope with technological change.

However, it is exciting that my research into discontinuous technological change and the necessary social and technological institutions that are required in developing countries is of interest to development organisations and governments.

I am looking forward to your comments, questions, contradictions and ideas!

Best wishes,


Pondering disruptions and industrial revolutions

I am asked almost daily about my opinion about “the fourth industrial revolution”, technological disruptions and the impact on jobs.

Depending on who asks, I might fire off a statement like “I don’t believe there is a fourth industrial revolution underway”. Or perhaps I might be a little bit more popular and say “I don’t think there is one, but probably many smaller revolutions going on”. I must be honest, I have also told several leaders in business and government, “definitely, and you had better pull up your socks and scan the horizon so that you don’t get caught with your pants down”.

I do feel a certain responsibility towards those that ask me these questions. I am all too aware that my response might encourage somebody to think more seriously about their organisation’s ability to sense change and to respond. Or my response might paralyse, or maybe even give somebody a reason to remain complacent. The truth is, we simply do not know the exact answer or extent of the technological changes around us.

When the change is as complex as it is now, and so dispersed across many actors in the economy and the world, we simply do not know. We can measure patents, imports, exports, value add, jobs, but we simply do not know how many entrepreneurs, government leaders or citizens are reading up on new ideas, trying new combinations, dreaming in the middle of the night of new business models and arrangements. These changes, when they aggregate into a pattern or a groundswell, often only make sense looking back. When we look back we see those moments where shifts took place, where tipping points were reached, where narrow or broad revolutions took place. But in the present moment, it is just foam, sweat and conflicting messages in the news that seems to make us numb.

Maybe it deserves a blog post on its own, but what we have to bear in mind is that in the original meaning of an industrial revolution, the “industrial” should be understood as technological change. The revolution describes what happens to many forms of social institutions. That means small and large, formal and informal social institutions are too clumsy, too rigid, fitting an older order but not ready for the new order. So it is not the autonomous vehicle that will disrupt us (well, maybe us geeks might be very distracted by them); the disruption will come from the massive investments that would be required in transport infrastructure, in the way we move around, in the way governments regulate, collect taxes, and so on. Maybe it challenges how companies are organised, maybe it completely challenges global supply chains or creates new markets that are much better than older markets. The physical technology, when it outpaces the evolution of the social technologies, disrupts the latter.

I must say this in stronger terms. When the evolution of the physical technologies is too far ahead it destabilises the society, because the required social technology modules are not available. It destabilises because the “have’s” can draw from other societies social institutions, while the rest are left out behind a huge and growing barrier.

For me, that means that we should figure out ways to enable experimentation and innovation in social technologies because this is the hard part. Investing in a specific physical technology and the required knowledge to use is still the easier bit. Figuring out how to crowd in a broad cross-section of the society, how to get more people to try new ways of managing, new forms of enterprise, new arrangements of market and non-market actors; that is where we need resilience and creativity.

In South Africa, I feel that we are all too focused on the physical technologies, the gadgets. Yet, our societies ability to raise new enterprises, to experiment with new management models, new ways of doing business enabled by new technologies, is just too low. Despite having richly diverse demography, having people with great experience and qualifications unemployed or employed and frustrated, we are simply creating or encouraging too few people to venture out and start something new.

Commemorating ​​Jorg Meyer-Stamer


Ten years ago on the 1st of May 2009, I called Jorg to tell him that I had just e-mailed my PhD thesis to the printers. The man who answered the call told me that Jorg had passed away. I can still remember my shock and confusion.

For many people, Jorg was a very clever but also strange person (we received hundreds of messages of condolence that expressed this). He became a close friend of mine. We trusted and admired each other. He probably thought that I was the weird one. He stretched my thinking. He challenged me to think things through, to use curiosity to explore ideas from many different angles. He sometimes used irony to challenge my thinking. Out of exasperation he occasionally embarrassed me, sometimes even in front of an audience. However, most of the time he was patiently coaching me, guiding me, asking questions, drawing pictures, dragging me along with him. We spent days together whenever we could and when apart we would Skype almost daily. I am still grateful that he bounced so many ideas off me. He encouraged me to trust my instinct and to use my interest in many different knowledge domains to enrich discussions and introduce different perspectives. He was a great role model.

I can remember how he would use my confused thinking to quickly write a working paper. More than once I thought my clumsiness was his gain, but then I also benefitted from his creations.

Once, we had a meeting with a high-ranking government official. This official asked lots of questions and explained to Jorg the many conundrums the government faced. After the meeting, I took Jorg to the airport, less than an hour away. On the way he asked some questions and asked me to explain some of the doubts expressed during the meeting. I dropped him off and returned to the office. About two hours later I received an email from Jorg with a whole article that he had written for the government official. In that article, he patiently unpacked many of the issues that he sensed we were struggling with.

This was not the only time that he would develop issues that we were discussing and creating amazing text from it. Jorg was a pioneer in many ways. I recall the day he told me that we were going to record a podcast. He invested in a proper recorder and nagged me for months that we record the first episode. I objected to being recorded, being mindful of my repetitive grammar mistakes and the difficulty I had with pronouncing “r’s”. But Jorg would have nothing of my futile attempts at avoiding this. In the end, we not only recorded one show but a whole series of more than 65 podcast episodes, called the LEDCast. Today, recording a podcast is easy. Editing is very easy. There are many publishers of audio shows. Listening to podcasts are also easy, with most smartphones offering clever apps to manage subscriptions. Back in 2007-2009, we had to use several different applications to level the sound, compress, add meta tags, edit, and convert the wave files to MP3. Then we had to get the files distributed. Nowadays, this is all done in one application.

Even between interviews with stakeholders, Jorg felt it was important to immediately record a podcast because something we heard had triggered an idea

The LEDCast was very popular, despite our doubts. Due to the high compression required to download a podcast over a dial-up or DSL line, the audio sounded very hollow and metallic. Yet some practitioners told us to our horror that they played the podcasts during training events or during town hall meetings! Once a stranger at a conference told me that I sounded much better in real life! Looking back I am grateful that Jorg did not give up on me.

Back in 2011, we had already had several hundred thousand downloads of our total 72 episodes. Every time I heard the jingle of the LEDCast I was filled with sadness and I stopped creating any further shows. To me, the LEDCast was a legacy of Jorg and I wanted to keep it together and whole. I must add that we still have between 100 to 2500 downloads every month of the LEDCast. Many of the episodes are still relevant. I also co-produced with Marcus Jenal a new series called Systemic Insight, available on Apple Store and Google Play.

Another memory that I have of Jorg was his curiosity about blogging. Although he registered a blog site, he never wrote a blog post on his own site. He foresaw that blogging would change the way knowledge is assimilated, processes and shared within communities. I remember that he thought I was crazy when I started blogging. I also recall how much he admired the early blogs by Dani Rodrick and some other early pioneers. Jorg was a prolific writer, I can only imagine what great content he would have created if only he had started.

The last ten years have been amazing for me. Jorg left me with many unfinished ideas, texts and a legacy of knowledge. By the time of his passing, I was already firmly part of the Mesopartner company. Most of the many ideas, plans, and concepts that we had started with or put on hold for after my PhD submission are still alive, or have been turned into content. Jorg and I had a folder structure called “seeds” wherein we had sub-folders for ideas for papers, tools, concepts and training formats. I still use this structure today. Many of the seeds have grown into successful products, concepts or publications. Many new seeds are under development, often in collaboration with others.

Before his illness, Jorg was seriously pondering how we (as Mesopartner) could move closer to academia and the research community. Our work in the field used many concepts and frameworks developed by scholars in a pragmatic way, and we wanted to create a feedback loop. After Jorg’s passing we established the Jorg Meyer-Stamer scholarship to actively promote collaboration between students and a network of academics that Jorg had close ties to. I became a member of the faculty at several universities, and so did Ulrich and Frank. We also took on more assignments that were of a more research nature, and several journal articles followed. The tone and style of our Annual Reflection has also changed to being more conceptual and rigorous. We have several concurrent research themes in Mesopartner where we are actively working with researchers, scholars and clients to develop new ideas, frameworks and instruments. Since Marcus Jenal joined Mesopartner we have also been working in a collaborative way on applying complexity and evolutionary thinking to economic development in a theme that we call Systemic Insight.

Some other habits and values of Jorg rubbed off on me. For instance, Jorg always stressed the importance of spending no more than 60% of my working time on paid work, with about 30% dedicated to research, development and concept refinement, leaving the remaining 10% for admin, networking and other interests. Jorg always emphasized that our value is not created only in how we execute the commissions we receive from clients (that 60% block), but that our highest value add comes from the 30% where we connect ideas, think of better ways of explaining concepts, where we give our creativity and curiosity some freedom. He also argued that the time spent on administration should be planned and taken seriously, as our clients not only learn from our content, papers and innovative training formats, but they also learn from how we organise our affairs and manage our business.

I have in the meantime been very fortunate to have clients pay me to do research and development, which means that in some weeks or months I get to spend almost 80% of my time on developing new concepts, text and little knowledge modules that can be used in many different ways. That is my lame excuse for not blogging more often….

There are many of these kinds of photos around. Here we are at the back of a training room working on the next session while the participants are doing groupwork

I cannot help it, but I often think of Jorg. I miss him. But mostly I am inspired by him. I wish more of my friends and close collaborators could have known him. Perhaps they do know him indirectly because I still use so many of his ideas. Or I talk about him. I know that his legacy lives on as we innovate, solve problems, formulate new concepts. I believe that his legacy also demands from us to be critical of ourselves, our work, the development industry – and that we sometimes have to take on sacred cows and ideology that often creeps into development work.

Jorg loved all kinds of energizers during training events. I tried my best to avoid these by taking photos, or pretending to prepare the next session.

Perhaps most importantly, Jorg was never afraid to put his ideas out there and to have them taken apart or rejected. He was not afraid of trying new ideas, of formulating a new concept, or challenging an established idea.

Jorg talking to a group of South Africans on a tour to Germany during 2008. Here we are at the Landschaftspark, one of Jorg’s favorite industrial heritage sites.

And that brings me to my final thought. How do I fare in sharing what I am learning with those close to me? How transparent am I with the ideas I am developing, the seeds I am nurturing? Not that I am comparing myself to the genius of Jorg, this man was like a living library and creator. Jorg was driven to develop his ideas and to find better ways to share them. I often get so busy with whatever is under my cursor that I forget to share.

I know I should write blog posts more often. I know that the true power of blogging is not in writing completed thoughts, but in sharing half-baked ideas and developing them further with friends, collaborators and the curious (this is the refrain of another person I admire, Harold Jarche). I cannot help buy feel overwhelmed with the amazing stuff that is generated by people that I admire. Do I add to the all the content that we are all drowning in already?

I can think of many areas where I can still make improvements. Perhaps it is time to record some new LEDCast episodes. Perhaps I can call it the 2019 series. Any ideas for a podcast, or any volunteers to be interviewed would be welcomed.

Maybe I should arrange more training events. Or try something new. Try something crazy, like the LEDCast idea was back in 2007. Like finish the handful of online training courses I have been working on.

Today, I feel inspired to try harder and more often to share and develop my ideas out in the open. When I look back, it is often the small naive ideas from more than ten years ago that laid strong foundations later. So I remind myself that excellence is not about getting the big things right, it is about the many small things we try to improve who we are, what we do, and how we serve those around us.

Please share some of your memories, insights or even photos of your encounters with Jorg. What of your learning inspired by Jorg have you applied in your work? Can you remember any great insights that you gained during a LED tour to Germany, a training event or during fieldwork?

Don’t be shy to make mistakes in a public forum! Send your half-baked ideas to me! If not via the comment section, then email it to me.

Why are digital technologies absorbed so rapidly in many developing countries?

Globalisation-weary politicians and advocates of local capability developments and geeks or technology promoters have one theme in common: technologies developed in the First World not only disrupt domestic companies, but upset whole sociotechnical regimes in developing countries.  While the benefits of digital technologies are not disputed, what is disputed is how to solve this problem.  This is where the two groups of lobbyists part ways.

One argument is that if local companies had some protection, better incentives, more support and everything else on their wish lists, then local entrepreneurs would be able to come up with similar digital technologies. How long this is likely to take and whether it will succeed is usually not discussed to any real extent.

The other argument is that disruption is good, and that the services of, say, Uber or Amazon disrupt local monopolies and save consumers millions while allowing “new” entrants into the markets. What happens when these global companies lose interest and withdraw suddenly, or when all local capacity to compete has been eroded is also not discussed.

I will steer clear of these and other flashpoints. For me the key differentiator that counts in favour of global digital technologies is that they create MARKET platforms. By market, I don’t just mean a space where sellers and buyers can meet. These platform technologies invest heavily in overcoming many market and institutional failures. For instance:

  • Many digital marketplaces carefully create trust systems where buyers and sellers can check each other out.
  • Most digital marketplaces give you lots of technical information, reviews from other users, and links to comparable products in higher and lower price brackets.
  • Most digital marketplaces coordinate logistics, customs, invoicing, tracking and customer support.
  • They accept numerous currencies and numerous payment methods.
  • Users can switch seamlessly between different platforms (add something to the shopping basket on your phone, complete the order on your computer).

This means that these global platforms overcome many of the market, coordination and government failures that keep developing country entrepreneurs so busy. Even though I have shifted my understanding of how economies evolve beyond market failures, I still see them everywhere. Maybe they are not as quantifiable as many economic theorists would make them sound, but their archetypes and characteristics still show up. I have made a note to explore these market failure archetypes in a next post. (other posts on 3D printing, IoT; tech push fallacy article over here)

The most disruptive digital technologies can be described as platform technologies, which means that they create marketplaces with their own institutions, rules, laws, recourse systems, fair play policies and competition between providers. These platforms crowd in both sellers and buyers. That is what makes them so easy to use, for both buyers and sellers. They personalise the options for market players. They integrate service providers and even regulatory requirements. So even if a better local digital technology may be available, consumers will go where there are more products, and sellers will go where there are more buyers. These platforms often displace or disrupt previous widespread platforms. The mobile phone has in many cases displaced several platforms, including newspapers. 

The only way developing countries can respond is to make sure that they create the right market-supporting institutions. The challenge is that while global platforms often start in one or two markets and then scale up, developing country governments have whole economies that are in need of interconnected and interdependent platforms. The challenge is to figure out which platforms would be the best learning places for rapid learning, adaptation and dissemination.

If you would like to keep informed of my progress on this topic, you can sign up in the box on the left of this post (or here) to receive a personal newsletter from me. I promise not to clog your inbox with junk mail. The sign-up form will help me to figure out what topics you are more interested in.

Ready for 2019

Yes, I know it is already February. It took me a month to settle in and get my focus right. Happy (new) year of the Pig to my clients and friends in the East!

This year started differently from previous years. I usually conclude most of my contracts by early December, and in January I often search for, select and initiate new contracts and research themes.

This year was different in several ways. Firstly, I have three research contracts that already started in November and December of last year (2018). I will describe these research projects in more detail in a next post.

Secondly, instead of hosting my business partners in South Africa for our annual meeting, I had to travel (with Annelien) to Argentina early in January. It took me a few days to settle in on our return.

A third reason why I am writing this first blog post of the year so late is because I had to decide how narrow I want my focus to be for the year ahead. I had to evaluate the risks of continuing on the path that I set out on last year. The rest of this post will be about this reason.

The first theme I dived into last year was about technological change and how developing countries (like South Africa) can prepare for technological change, disruption and perhaps even the mythical Fourth Industrial Revolution. I worked with the Trade and Industry Policy Strategies (TIPS) research organisation in Pretoria to advise a newly established Chief Directorate on how to assist the manufacturing sector to prepare for technological convergence and disruption. Once the papers are available for public comment I will post them on this website. (click here if you would like to receive a draft in the meantime and the final version when it is approved for distribution).

Under this theme I could work in several countries on technological change, disruption and knowledge for innovation.

The second theme was about how organisations that are meant to support structural economic change or address market failures adapt, change, evolve and come into being. I was able to finalise a third version of the meso organisation adaptation framework, and had several opportunities to test elements of the diagnostic instrument in South Africa and elsewhere. I could use elements of this research also in Kosovo, Germany and at some of my longstanding clients in South Africa.

These two themes come together in the field of sociotechnical change and evolutionary thinking. It combines knowledge domains such as innovation systems, evolutionary economics, new institutional economics, innovation, organisational development and learning and knowledge management. I see myself more and more as a researcher and facilitator of search and discovery processes, and less and less as an expert and consultant.

I decided to continue down this path for 2019. I want to immerse myself in the meso level where leadership of meso organisations has to anticipate sociotechnical shifts, and where managers have to manage competing objectives for scarce resources. I would like to work with business leaders who have to figure out not only how to catch up with better-resourced, powerful global competitors, but where the private sector must often make up for incomplete economic policies, supporting institutions and other structural failures. I would like to partner with research organisations and various other researchers and expand the research theme on the website.

So here I am in 2019. If you would like to keep informed of my progress, you can sign up in the box on the left of this post (or here) to receive a personal newsletter from me. I promise not to clog your inbox with junk mail.

Photo credit: Goran Jankovic of the EDA in Banja Luka (BiH). Picture taken during a session with industry leaders on innovation, competitiveness and leveraging knowledge for innovation during September 2018.