Disruptive and incremental digital social innovation

28.09.2012 Blog

At the Ignite Athens event in September 2012, Neelie Kroes (the European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda) talked about the importance of what she terms disruptive innovation using ICT as the key to creating jobs, growing the economy and tackling social problems. Although a lot depends on definitions and although my critique is probably unfair as I am cherry-picking quotes, what is missing for me at least is a more rounded approach to innovation especially in the social context.

According to the recently published Global Innovation Index from INSEAD, disruptive innovations that come out of nowhere are very rare. The vast majority of innovations are in fact incremental changes built on the underpinnings of other knowledge, technologies, or platforms. What is important for most innovations to occur is a set of enabling conditions that trigger people and groups with the right knowledge and skills to recognize (even serendipitously) an incremental step that can be taken at that moment in time. Digital technologies, and especially the Internet, are now for the first time in history providing a quantum leap in these enabling conditions on an unprecedented and global scale. According to INSEAD, we are entering an era of ‘inevitable’, ‘permission-less’ and ‘boundary-less’ innovation enabled by ICT. Key to such digitally-enabled social innovation is the collective social and intellectual behaviour that arises out of interconnected networks of people who can make these networks perform like rapidly evolving organisms. This phenomenon is only just beginning to be understood in a new and emerging scientific discipline called ‘network science’ that seeks to understand the principles and behaviours governing networked behaviour.

Of course, both disruptive and incremental innovations are important for social innovation. One hypothesis might be that incremental innovations are more likely to provide supports for people with disrupted lives at the micro scale of everyday life. Small innovative changes might provide such support, like sending simple SMS alerts to help them remember to take medicine or attend a meeting with their case worker. Disruptive innovations, on the other hand, might be what are needed to make a radical difference, especially to social problems that require deep seated change and radical action. An example here might be SMS money transfer for people without bank accounts which can truly transform their lives by enabling them for the first time to send money to distant relatives or purchase goods and services not available where they live.

Another research question is, do digital technologies change the mix of innovation types, their speed and their impacts? What role does and will the network effect have on social innovations? TEPSIE will be examining issues around digitally-enabled social innovations over the next two years. Please join us. You can already access our first publication on the development of online networking tools. We’ll be posting regular updates on www.siresearch.eu through the blog. Or you can contact Jeremy Millard (jrm@teknologisk.dk) direct at any time.


The Global Innovation Index 2012: Stronger Innovation Linkages for Global Growth, INSEAD, Paris: www.globalinnovationindex.org