How technologies evolve

In my previous post, I introduced the general evolutionary algorithm of variety creation, selection and amplification.

I intentionally remained vague about what the evolutionary algorithm act upon by referring to “ideas”. In this post I will be more specific about what kind of ideas evolution acts on.

Nelson and Winter (1982) argued that the material that evolution acts upon are formal and informal routines:

“ We use this term to include characteristics of firms that range from well-specified technical routines for producing things, through procedures for hiring and firing, ordering new inventory, or stepping up production of items in high demand, to policies regarding investment, research and development, advertising, business strategy about product diversification and overseas investment. In our evolutionary theory, these routines play the role that genes play in biological evolutionary theory

(Nelson and Winter, 1982:14)

These routines could emerge through serendipity or they could be the result of the creative efforts of individuals or teams. They could originate in isolation, but very often they are combinations of old and new, or combinations of internal and external ideas tried in a local context. These routines could be arranged around particular equipment or processes, or they could be norms about how people in a workplace treat each other.

These routines become part of the technology available to the firm. Good ideas that seem to work better than alternative arrangements typically spread between organisations and teams through imitation, social networks or the movement of people. Sometimes ideas are spread by word of mouth, other times through text or the media, and in some cases through mimicking or copying (or reverse engineering). Sometimes a confluence of factors makes the same ideas or routines emerge in many different organisations at the same time. Think back to how we all had to figure out how to get our work done during the Covid lockdowns.

Within organisations, the ideas and the routines that are selected are chosen by how they contribute to the objectives of the organisation. For most companies, the contribution of these routines to profitability is important, but that is not the only criteria. External and internal incentives will shape what is deemed the selection and retention criteria. I have visited enough companies to know that profitability is not the only criteria. Within companies, there are marketplaces for ideas. If somebody makes an suggestion about an improvement or adjustment management and peers might select those ideas, or they may be rejected. But let me not digress.

Ultimately, all the routines and ideas that a company create, adapt and combine (through its internal idea markets) result in products, services and offerings that are either selected or rejected by external markets.

But we know that organisations cannot only achieve their objectives with routines. I again turn to Nelson and Winter (1982) who argued that there is a co-evolution between two different kinds of technological spaces:

  • Physical technologies are what we often think of as technology. It is the artefacts, equipment, infrastructure and even code that are used to perform a function or to harness natural phenomena to achieve a specific outcome. These technologies are methods and processes for transforming matter, energy and information from one state into another in pursuit of a particular outcome. A physical technology is not only an artefact, it also includes the designs, instructions and code needed to make it, maintain and use it. Physical technologies are typically modular and often interdependent on other physical technologies. For instance, my smartphone depends on other technologies to function like a mobile network and the electricity distribution system.
  • Social technologies are methods, designs and arrangements for organising people in pursuit of a goal or objective. Social technologies smooth the way for information to be exchanged, priorities to be set, or unexpected situations to be dealt with. Social technologies enable (or disable) learning and adapting to changes in the environment. Organising people into a hierarchy, creating and enforcing regulations or arranging marketplaces are all social technologies. Like physical technologies, social technologies are modular and cumulative. Each new knowledge module or routine that is created opens up new further opportunities for a variety of new creations.

This co-evolution within an organisation also co-evolves with the physical and social technology spaces beyond the organisation. For instance, the social technologies beyond the firm like the regulatory frameworks, the incentives in the economy to innovate, or the tolerance of failure or uncertainty will influence the physical and social technologies available within the firm.

In the same way, the physical technologies beyond the firm, like the infrastructure, access to scarce equipment or expertise or access to required inputs will also shape the choices of physical and social technologies available to the leadership.

The point is that the social and physical technologies harnessed in any organisation is not isolated from the social and physical technologies in the environment around the firm. Ideas cross over the permeable boundaries of the organisation.

Of course, we expect innovative leaders to create internal environments that are much more conducive than external environments around their firms. However, we know how hard it is to get this right. In many developing countries, leaders of companies (but also government departments) have to contend with a wide range of challenges that make the deployment of more recent physical and social technologies very hard – largely because of a lack of diversity and depth in the social and physical technologies beyond their organisation. I will come back to this in a moment.

In 2006, Eric Beinhocker published The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics. It is one of the books that have influenced my thinking the most. In his book, Beinhocker reframes the social and physical spaces introduced by Nelson and Winter as “design spaces” within which entrepreneurs and leaders have to make choices based on their resources, their capabilities, the external environment and the markets they are in.

Beinhocker also introduces a third design space that he calls the Business Plan design space. This is where entrepreneurs, leaders and innovators have to meld physical and social technologies together under a strategy, and then create routines that express the resulting design into the economic world. This strategy must include ways to raise finance, attract talent, set priorities, allocate resources and create an internal environment that is typically distinct from the external environment. From my experience of working with innovative teams, I know that this business plan space could also be described as an “entrepreneurial technology” because. Just like the other two design spaces, entrepreneurial technologies are created by combining knowledge modules, insights, talent, networks and competencies into new configurations.

So now we have three design spaces that co-evolve in a given organisation. There are physical technologies, social technologies and business plans/entrepreneurial technologies. At the same time, this co-evolution in the organisation also co-evolves with the design spaces beyond the firm. The inside of the organisation exchanges genetic material with the design spaces in the immediate and even more distant design spaces.

To tie this back to the evolutionary algorithm, within each of these three design spaces, variety is created, selections are made, and “good” ideas are amplified. A “good” idea meets the requirements of the internal idea markets within organisations and eventually must also meet the fitness criteria in the marketplace.

Innovation is not only about designing better physical technologies, we also need to foster innovation in the other design spaces within and beyond firms. It is very hard (I would go as far as claiming it is impossible) to successfully innovate in one design space without affecting the innovation potential in the other design spaces.

At the same time, development practitioners must pay attention to how the design spaces within organisations affect or interact with the design spaces beyond firms. This is where the co-evolution of companies, public organisations, universities and other social organisations and the physical infrastructure co-evolve.

Sources:

Beinhocker, E.D. 2007.  The origin of wealth. Evolution, complexity, and the radical remaking of economics. London: Random House.

Nelson, R.R. and Winter, S.G. 1982.  An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

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Shawn Cunningham

I am passionate about how organisations and institutions change in developing and transitioning countries. I essentially work between organisations, communities, industries and experts.

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