Evolution, Revolution and the Progression of Technology

Once again, we are reminded of how new technologies progress forward.  And, this reminder is consistent with the research findings about how technology advances. The key issue is whether it is evolution or revolution that drives technology forward.

Not long ago, an example of this issue appeared in the media in an article about driverless car technology.  The article discusses how tech industry attempts to revolutionize the car were tempered by reality. The title of the article, which appeared in the December 7, 2020 Wall Street Journal’s Heard on the Street section, is “Tech Tempers Dreams for Autos”. But, it is the article’s subtitle that makes a really important point. The subtitle is “Sector’s future in cars will likely be more evolutionary than revolutionary.”

It is not surprising that the future of cars is likely to be more evolutionary than revolutionary. As I pointed out in my report titled “Evolution, Not Revolution” which I published here on this website back in 2007, successful innovation generally entails evolution, not revolution, and what may appear to outsiders as revolutionary has generally entailed a series of evolutionary steps by developers of the innovation. Best-selling business book author Jim Collins reported similar research findings in his 2011 book “Great by Choice”, which says that what appears to be revolutionary is really a series of iterative steps.

My report and Collins’ book have a business emphasis. However, similar concepts are described in technology oriented books about innovation, which point out that new technologies are most successful when they are an adjacent possible. This means that the successful new technology is an adjacency to what already exists and that the success is possible because essential related infrastructure is already in place. That’s why it takes so much more than just the advanced technology skills of the developer for the new technology to successfully attain widespread use. Clearly, there are challenges faced by driverless cars that are related to its technology not yet fully reaching the point of becoming an adjacent possible.

On the other hand, driverless car technology is moving forward in an evolutionary manner. For example, as auto makers come out with new models of their vehicles, they may introduce new features that bring the car a bit closer toward being driverless. Essentially, since driverless car technology is evolutionary, it fits the pattern of how successful technology in general comes about. And, since this is a pattern that recurs regularly, it is not surprising that it applies to the technology associated with driverless cars.

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