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 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:
- 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,
- That is followed by an era of ferment from which a dominant design emerges; and
- 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.
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. 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. 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.
 The work of Tushman and Anderson (1986), Abernathy and Utterback (1978) are still frequently cited today.
 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.
 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. 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. www.tips.org.za DOWNLOAD