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What is disruptive innovation, and is it good or bad for society? That’s a question that economists and business leaders return to again and again as technologies evolve and change.
The answer depends on how new ideas are implemented, and how people around the globe are subsequently affected.
One thing experts agree on though, is that disruptive innovation serves society best when companies create environments where a mindset for the common good is established. For disruptive innovation to work in a positive way, principles of positive disruption must be embraced across all sectors and taught to people who work at all organizational levels.
Positives outweighing negatives
Common downsides of disruption can include job cuts, misuse of new technology, and other unpredicted side effects. But Robert Brunner, PhD, associate dean for innovation and chief disruption officer at the Gies College of Business at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, says there is always a positive side to disruption.
No two disruptions are quite alike, but Brunner believes that disruptive innovation doesn’t have to subtract jobs. It can be viewed as a predictable part of a process that creates new opportunities, and therefore new jobs.
“Any job has the potential for disruption,” he says. “What would happen if we suddenly had cars that can fly? There will be new jobs created. If we suddenly had the ability to travel by air instead of on roads, would we address urban gridlock, or maybe solve housing issues? It’s really amazing, there are so many forces converging. It’s important to look at the big picture and see all the good that can happen.”
Paying attention to progress and anticipating disruption is key to tackling potential downsides of disruptive innovation. For example, Brunner is intrigued by new technology through which an app allows people to describe an image or scene they want to see – and voila, the app creates that image or scene.
“That’s kind of a cool thing,” he says. “But when you think about it, there are people whose job it is to create stock images, and companies that pay them to do it. What happens to those people’s jobs?”
Taking that notion a step further, he sees the emergence of technology that creates a whole video, not just an image, and wonders how that would affect the advertising business.
“Suddenly you have large chunks of industry for whom the impact is potentially huge and possibly negative,” he says.
But he’s convinced that disrupted industries can right themselves, and that new opportunities will be created for the people who are affected – as long as society is taking note of what’s changing and responding in positive ways.
“Humans are very smart and very creative and in general will always work very hard,” Brunner says. “It’s very difficult to get artificial intelligence to work that hard and be that creative, you are always going to need people to tell it what to do.”
Anticipating societal impacts
Brunner points to a quote by hockey great Wayne Gretzky, who said, “I skate to where the puck is going, not to where it’s been.” It’s about looking forward, not backward, he says, which is critical for businesses who aim to anticipate industry disruption they cannot yet see. As an educator, he says, “We have to build programs that offer people skills before those skills are needed. We have to take them to where the puck is going to be.”
It’s also critical that leaders keep a close eye on potential societal impacts of disruptive innovation that may not have been clear when the disruption was first introduced. Brunner uses drones as an example of evolving technology that has great potential for positive change, but also carries dangerous disadvantages.
Craig Copeland, disruptive theorist and author of the book “Disruptors: The Gateway to Genius-Level Thinking,” says it’s important to note that a large swath of disruptive innovators have great ideas that are executed poorly, what’s often known as disruption for the sake of disruption.
He believes it’s important that companies recommit to funding research and development divisions that used to be mainstays of successful businesses. “Now we have every company privatizing ideas and keeping what they’ve learned to themselves so that no one else can work on it,” he says. “Companies need to think beyond what’s going to make a profit.”
Daniel Burrus, an author and disruptive innovation consultant, says that companies that are disrupted have chosen that outcome. “If you sit back and do nothing new, you’ll be disrupted,” he says.
Though we live in an uncertain world, Burrus says that there are certain trends we can — and should – predict. “iPhones are not going to stop getting powerful, it’s an exponential technology,” he says. “You can see how it’s gone, then predict how powerful it will be in four to five years. You see where the disruption will hit before it hits.”
Another knowable trend, Burrus says, is that businesses will lose people to retirement. But what we don’t know is whether retirees take their experience and knowledge with them.
“We don’t want to lose the knowledge base, the wisdom base, of the baby boomers we now know are retiring in record numbers,” Burrus says. “And we have the ability to pre-solve that before they go. Mentoring programs are one great example of how that can be done.”
He notes that all companies should be on the lookout for disruption, and all should be tapping into their most valuable resource – their workforce – continuously and optimistically.
“You want to empower all your people, from sales staff to receptionists, to keep their antennae up, and to look for the problems that are predictable,” he says. “Instead of teaching people to be reactionary, teach them to be anticipatory.”
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