Electric Vehicles, Electric Lights and iPhones

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


When new technologies compete, what tips the scale toward one or the other?


Maggie Koerth-Baker wrote a terrific article in the New York Times, Why Your Car Isn't Electric, which captures some of the social dimensions of technological innovation by looking at the dominance and demise of the electric vehicle in the first decade of the 20th century. If only inventors, entrepreneurs, and policy makers could spare the time to consider these dimensions before rushing off to change the world.

In 1900, the technology of the automobile was far from certain - the steam engine and electric motor were front-runners - yet, within the first decade, the field had essentially aligned around the internal combustion engine. Looking back, it's stunning how such a momentous decision could emerge so quickly. But it's not much different, perhaps, than the emergence of the smartphone and its industry structure in the first decades of 21st century (or the PC in the 1980s).

Koerth-Baker asks: "Why doesn't the best technology always win?" Part of the answer is that there is no such thing as best, because that requires us all to agree on a single dimension of quality. The adoption of electric vehicles stalled due to some earlier and visible failures, but also because the cost and weight of batteries was the same problem then as today. But part of the answer is that, once you get out of the lab, innovation doesn't exist in a technical vacuum.

Consider a famous example - the QWERTY keyboard, which we are so familiar with and which was originally and intentionally designed to slow our typing speeds (in order to prevent the mechanical keys from jamming). Economist Paul David used this example to describe how path dependence - essentially the co-evolution of social, technical, and cognitive infrastructure (not his words) - creates efficiencies that are more powerful than any one alone.

In this case, the rise of typing schools (a social institution) and the practice of touch-typing (a cognitive one) committed to the QWERTY layout, producing yet faster typists than other layouts sans dedicated schools and typists.

Once we get comfortable with using a new technology in a particular way, we are reluctant to give it up. David Kirsch, author of the great book, "The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History," recognizes the same challenge for potential adopters of the electric car today:

"Part of what makes infrastructure is its invisibility… When we have to create infrastructure for ourselves - installing charging stations at our houses, for instance - we make the invisible visible. It becomes an overwhelming task, like having to remake the world. Most people just want a car."

The challenge, then and now, is how to design new technologies in ways that tap, or co-opt, this existing infrastructure and offer little or no technical, social, or cognitive "switching costs." As I've written elsewhere, Edison pursued this strategy in getting his customers (and investors and regulators) to accept his new system of electric lighting. Indeed, when he set out to improve the electric light and make it a commercial success, he wrote in his notebook:

"Object, Edison to effect exact imitation of all done by gas, so as to replace lighting by gas, by lighting by electricity."

He went so fast as to hobble the new technology to make it appear as much like the old as possible - introducing a 13-watt bulb despite having developed brighter ones because the gas lamp burned equivalently dim. A positive review in the New York Times said that, from the street, you could not tell whether a room was lit by electricity or gas.

This is, of course, also the reason that Google's Android and Samsung's designs hewed so closely to the iPhone they followed. It was essential that their smartphone designs, and the applications it supported, represented as little change to the existing technical, social, and cognitive aspects of what it wanted to displace. For customers to accept it, for the mobile carriers, and for the developers of apps, it had to look as similar to what came before as possible.

One lesson of the EV, the electric light, and the iPhone is that the best path towards disruptive innovations may sometimes lie in pursuing those strategies that seem the least disruptive, at least in the beginning, to the existing technical, social, and even cognitive dimensions of any existing systems.

We Get Support From:
Become a Supporter

Funding support from:

AndrewHargadonAndrew Hargadon is the Charles J. Soderquist Chair in Entrepreneurship and Professor of Technology Management at the Graduate School of Management at University of California, Davis. Hargadon's research focuses on the effective management of innovation, particularly sustainable innovation, and he is author of numerous articles, essays, and the book How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth About How Companies Innovate (Harvard Business School Press).

Read more about Andrew Hargadon

We Get Support From:

Become a Supporter