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Why does the diffusion of innovation take so long?

The diffusion of innovation can take up to 10 years. Why is industry so slow to catch up on new technology? Why is there such a gap between what science knows, and what business does? Why don't I see technology presented in TED Talks from before 2005 in the market today? Why is 10 year old research/knowledge/technology still "news" to people in the industry? How can we speed up the diffusion of innovation?

  • Jun 16 2011: Besides companies not wanting to take risks some companies stop some new technology that would make them obsolete. The best example is the oil industry. Every car and all the earth's energy could have come from alternative clean energy sources years ago, but we're still using gas in our cars. Some gas companies hold patents to batteries for electric cars that could go many times further and faster than current electric cars.
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      Jun 17 2011: There was an excellent example of this in a talk by Deborah Rhodes at TEDWomen, ( it is about the resistance in the medical industry against new gamma ray technology that is far superior to traditional x-ray technology in finding breast cancer.
    • Jun 18 2011: No one is suppressing or hiding battery technology breakthroughs. Batteries are heavier than gasoline, per unit amount of energy, for fundamental physical reasons. It is simply a matter of the mass of atoms and the energy in chemical bonds. Lithium batteries are lightweight because lithium is element number 3 on the periodic table. But lithium batteries are still heavier than gasoline, and we can't go any lower on the periodic table to find a lighter weight battery material.
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    Jun 15 2011: (Part 2/3)

    A very vivid and probably familiar example for putting rationality in second row is the refusal of co-workers and bosses to make use of computer technology. I encountered that attitude myself when I worked in the military staff department for human resources. We possessed a large paper list with thousands of individuals. When their assignments changed, we had to write it down in this giant list manually, and when we had to look up information about specific people, we searched in old storages with even older index cards. This was a tedious work and prone to errors. So I asked the really helpful secretary to type in all these names in Excel in order to have a digital list. She did so, which made the search for specific names and further information a matter of seconds while simultaneously reducing errors near to zero! But I bet the system broke down as soon as I left. My approach was at least "tolerated", as long as I also kept up the traditional method where you protocol the changes on paper lists.

    Why did the digitalization fail in this department? I see the problem in the fact that they we were paid to do the work, and not paid to do the work *efficiently*. It was a simple case of wrong incentives. So maybe we should phrase question as: "What economical and emotional incentives do the deciders in businesses have to adapt to new technology?" Or, to specify your question about how we can speed up the change:

    "How can we increase economical and emotional incentives for deciders in businesses to adapt to new technology?"
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    Jun 11 2011: I would say that (among all other great points made here) people have a hard time learning to trust new technology. Because of this, it makes it even more difficult for an entire company, much less a corporation to adopt new technology. Also, we must consider any sort of learning curve a new technology inherently brings. If a whole company has to work to implement a new technology, not only is there the cost to purchasing the technology, but there is bound to be lost revenue when taking time to teach individuals how to use it. Also, there is bound to be a fair amount of political bickering within a company as to when/why/how will technology be incorporated into their system. I believe there, among many other reasons, is why we see a frustratingly slow diffusion of technology.
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    Jun 11 2011: A naive answer could be that technology investors don't receive its returns yet. When someone creates something new or improves something already made, he/she expects to collect big returns to his/her great efforts, because price of innovation is more expensive than paying for something having lower levels of creativity. After 10 years of innovation applied, the curve of awards vs. time begins to show an asymptotic behavior, which means that it's time to put into market a new innovation for an other 10-year period, and so on.
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    Jun 11 2011: Actually, it's strange.
    I think, the habits take the advantage, it's so easy to do what we are doing for years...

    I see the Dan Pink talk too and I was chocked to see the border between science knowledges and management technics used.
    But where to find these informations somewhere else than on TED? I think it's our duty to spread these informations to the appropriate persons.

    There is few days, I learned on a talk that I never tied my shoes correctly, and so, I share the talk with my family and my friends.
    So, if you know managers, big boss, ... do the same with Dan's talk. And it's available with all the talks.
  • Jun 14 2011: Not all ideas that sound good can be implemented for a profit, and many cannot be implemented at all. It is much easier for someone to give a talk or write a description to say they have a new technology, than it is to actually make it work. And making it profitable is yet another level of difficulty.

    Most new ideas that are tried don't work out, so money is wasted. Investors know this fact, so it is very difficult for anyone to be paid to intentionally innovate. People who want to innovate have a strong incentive to say their idea is all ready to be implemented, in order to get anyone else to be interested or to invest. Therefore, we should accept that some of the new technologies that take long to get to market are either (1) just wishful thinking to begin with, or (2) they need further innovation to implement.

    Turning ideas into technology reality is called engineering. Perhaps many people expect too much from engineering, misunderstand engineering, or take it for granted. It is ironic that this entire TED Convesation so far does not include the word "engineering" or "engineer" in any of the prior comments.

    Companies have to make changes to implement innovation. Changes upset the social order within an organization, which contributes to the tendency to slow down new technologies. In many cases, people who are good at running companies don't understand innovation at all. One thing that might help is to find a way to actually reward innovators, rather than only rewarding the process of copying and using an innovation.
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      Jun 15 2011: Great point. There is a huge importance in linking those with and idea to those who can construct the idea, then to those who can market an idea. We all assume to live in a world in which "anything is possible," yet that gives nobody the right to say "Hey, "they" should really come up with something which can..." A thought in a mind is very far from a prototype of a product, which itself is very far from any sort of commercial market. Great response, I agree wholeheartedly.
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    Jun 10 2011: Unfortunately, the fact remains that if a product is not profitable, there is less incentive to produce it amongst our global private markets. The lag (of often more than 10 years) between technology and consumer products is almost entirely due to the insecurity of the investments. That said, much more can be done by for example government's around the world to speed up this process of thought to product. alas, the current situation could be better:

    To me, social media seems the safest bet for the contribution of all this knowledge. TED being one the best examples.
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    Jun 10 2011: Business (although they balance risk daily) are afraid to make unproven risks. Once another company proves money can be made using the new method or technology everyone jumps on.
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      Jun 10 2011: Still, not using technology that has been researched for almost a decade is pretty slow, even for the risk adverse.
      • Jun 21 2011: Hi Martin,

        Well a simple answer would be because The politic and monetary systems we use are older than the discovery of the most advanced way of knowing reality wich is the scientific metod... So science and technology are subordinated by money, politics and dogmas. If we used science and technology to solve all the world problems and redesign everything we could have the most advanced technologies and solutions in our hands.

        Please watch this if you have time:
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          Jun 24 2011: Martin, I live in the U.S and I can't agree more with Kuri. I will give you a quick example, the electric car came out decades ago in the U.S in California. But because it threaten the oil industries and many other establishments, the electric cars got retrieved and vanished for a while due to the huge sums of lobbying put in by the establishments ban the cars.
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          Jun 24 2011: I agree with Kuri as well - so it is about time that science reforms the banking and monetary system, creating a value system (material and non-material) that is open to change in general (not only innovation). Sometimes I have the feeling that the 20th and 21th century believe that they can stop in time; keep at the best off status - and apply innovation only to secure this best off status. Well - this is not going to work.

          If we favor innovation, we must be so fair to admit that innovation is an open-ended process - it can improve and it can deteriorate our lives. Of course he hope and believe in the good power of innovation; but reality has often proven this hope to be wrong. And that might be the simple reason why people are reluctant to trade the known (even if not best working) with the unknown (maybe better, maybe worse)...

          I recommend to understand such aniexties instead of bashing so-called ignorant people. I am sure everyonne even in TED has his personal limit to innovation risks....
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    Jun 10 2011: We need to expand the numbers of innovators and early adaptors in our society to ensure quick diffusion of innovation.
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      Jun 10 2011: But how can we increase the number of early adopters?
      Sinek's talk is great by the way, but does not answer my question.
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        Jun 11 2011: Well I tried to answer your question in main premise. Ok there are examples across different industry that adoption of innovation can be speeded up by understanding psyche of target customer better and then come up with innovative marketing communication program.

        Just an recent example of adoption of iPhone, iPad by people......
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          Jun 11 2011: The problem though Salim,

          is that these inventions are being used as toys and not tools.

          Public educations stink all across the globe.

          A billion people who have a say in how the world should be ran is too poor to speak.

          We are not fully and properly educated* and we are not fully and properly educating as a world community.

          What makes us a sloth-like evolution of public knowledge, is public educations.
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        Jun 11 2011: HI NicholasYes the examples I gave are mostly used as toys but can be used as useful tools as well depends on who is using it. The example was given as it's very recent and widely known to show how marketing communication can drive quick adoption of an innovation.

        Agree about the huge gap in public education that's why the need of proper communication is there to make aware and educate people about new innovation. the challenge is until something is commercially profitable many innovations even don't see the day light. Think of IBMs first mainframe computer , until the computer could be commoditized the innovation of computer technology was unkwon to majority of public.
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          Jun 11 2011: Indeed, but then look at how the internet was began!
  • Jul 7 2011: Martin god doggan, You need funding to implement business activity. You need an open society who will readily accept
    new ideas/
    Tack sa Myket
  • Jul 4 2011: Another concise but more serious answer to your question: path dependence.
  • Jul 4 2011: This is the best way I can think of to answer your question with an original answer that gets at what you really seem to be asking: "how come the cool things we have aren't as cool as I we might imagine they could be?"
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    Jun 25 2011: Is there enough awareness that diffusion of information is critical. A more aware society promotes this concept...
  • Jun 24 2011: It not that it always takes time for innovation to diffuse. It depends upon number of factors, whether the innovation is monumental or incremental,how does it change the existing, how strong are the barriers .how much value the innovation will bring, its scalability, etc.....Take for example the innovations like Google, Facebook,etc they have not taken time to diffuse....
    an idea when reaches the tipping point gathers the momentum and transforms....
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    Jun 24 2011: A new theory of economics can help to explain the diffusion process of innovation - if 10 years is really slow I do not dare to judge. Just image the diffusion rate 50 years ago? Aren´t we in high speed compared?

    The theory is called "new institutional economics" or "game theory" - its thesis: if you have hidden actions and hidden acteurs, meaning that you do have IMperfect foresight of the future, than you can not calculate the risks of developments properly. Than you make wrong decisions.

    To me "innovation" is similar to such imperfect foresight - beause innovation means that you do not know what is coming. innovation brings newness - it is inherently always a surprise (thank god!, that is what i love about it) and therefore innovation constructs a world of information imperfectness. Unfortunately this has adverse economic implications... but that is a different chapter.
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    Jun 24 2011: Unfortunately the first reaction of human thinking in front of new ideas is rejection and denial.
    I am a robotic designer/Inventor and every time I am presenting my single port robotic surgery technology to surgeons I can see in their faces a combination of emotional reactions – fear, awesome, invalidation, etc. – even when the da Vinci robotic system is available in many countries. There are many doctors with an open attitude toward robotic surgery, but there are others attached to traditional methods.
  • Jun 24 2011: The real question is do we really want to speed up the diffusion of innovation...

    For people who always want to experience the frontline of technology innovation, nothing is stopping them. To shift from traditional light to LED light may seem a small step but actually it is a huge undertaking. To replace all the lightbulbs on the market in a short period of time is a burst action and such actions are almost never good on a macro scale. Yes we're interested in engergy efficient products, but we also want predictable pace of progress.

    - Ding
  • Jun 22 2011: Another thing with diffusion is that a lot of people are quite comfortable with how things are or even long for simpler, older times when innovation meant a straw to drink your leamonade.

    Every change is not accepted readily, even if it theoretically, makes life easier.
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    Jun 21 2011: But is it really bad that innovation takes "so long" to diffuse? I don't think so.

    Nature's "inventions" can take thousands, even millions of years to diffuse. But then, they're entirely foolproof, brilliant, certain and very useful breakthroughs. Not so with fast-diffusing human "innovation". Precisely, perhaps, because it spreads so fast.

    And then, what's innovation really? The jump from writing on paper to using computers: yes. That took a few thousand years. Jumping from iPhone 3 to 4? No.

    Please, let the big breakthroughs and paradigm-shifts follow each other up slowly, so we can all adapt to them. We don't want a Kurzweilesque singularity, do we?

    Also, I'm not a venture capitalist. For those people, speed may be important. They thrive on rapidly changing markets; often on superficial "innovation". For the rest of us, I think, we all welcome things to go a bit more relaxed.
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      Jun 21 2011: But isn't 10 years to thoroughly research and 10 years to completely implement, say, the transition to LED lightbulbs a bit too long? The EU recently decided that all motor vehicles in big cities must run on non-fossil fuel by 2050. And half "already" by 2030. Still, 40 years to transition to a better fuel for cars?
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        Jun 27 2011: Specifically in regards to LED lightbulbs... the price may be an issue for many. A lot of people live from paycheck to paycheck. Once the price of the product matches what people are willing/able to invest for the longterm savings purpose, the product will find a bigger consumer base.
    • Jun 24 2011: Kurzweil's theory does not suggest that we mannually increase the pace of development, he's simply stating that the speed of technology/biological evolution has been increasing, no one seems to find evidence that this will stop, so he proposes that this will continue to happen.

      I think, we can possibly surpress this evolution but technology will unlock so much possibility it will be hard to resist, so many people will choose to adapt. After this point, it works very similar to natrual selection, if the adaptation proves more potent, these people will secure a higher chance of survival, the resisting group will become smaller and smaller, eventually be filtered out.

      - Ding
  • Jun 18 2011: Actually the pace of innovation adoption has increased tremendously. The faster we communicate ideas, the faster adoption happens. Right now you might think that adoption is slow but in the past before paper was invented, it took hundreds of years for an idea to take hold. Now its a few years at most. The barriers to adoption are 1.not knowing about the innovation. 2.not communicating the innovation. 3.not knowing how to apply it. 4.not knowing if other people will want it. 5. convincing non-scientists that it will work 6. pushing past other people who like the status quo. Also new technology is usually expensive to research, implement and market. Current business have already invested in current technologies and are unlikely to change unless the see a looming threat. e.g (iphone, ipad)
  • Jun 18 2011: The major gap is Not-knowing –the-application-of-invention or recent science. When science invents something, its application is not easily understood.

    A lot of efforts; cost, and human capital are behind every science invention, unfortunately, there is not that much effort to communicate the application (its usage) to its concerned world as it is during its invention.

    The problem also exists in business side too; because they know recent science accidently thru print or electronic media. I believe they should seek such information and invention.

    On other hand, there is always resistance against change; while every change is beneficial to many people; it also harmful economically to some businesses because it replaces the existing ones.

    Kabul Afghanistan
    • Jun 20 2011: What does it mean to say "science invents"? My understanding is that people invent.

      Regarding the question of applications not being understood, there has to be creativity to deliberately make a thing that works for a particular application. This is called doing engineering, and it is often deliberate for the person(s) doing it, although there are certainly some surprises that lead to applications not expected.
      • Jun 22 2011: Dear John,
        By "Science invents", I meant invention only. I do not see anything like " my understanding is that people invent".

        Regarding application, maybe I did not use the right word. But I was trying to say that there are a lot of useful things invented but we are not aware of them. How can we increase awareness for the quick adoption of a new invention by its users?

  • Jun 18 2011: Incorporating technology into new products and services is the highest risk / reward activity that any business can take. I believe this is a big factor in the lag of technology into commercial application. Faster and easier to copy and improve what's out there. When a new technology does find its way into a commercial application, and if it proves to be successful, then for other companies it becomes much easier and more economically viable to copy and improve it. Hardware and software technology for touch pads are a good example of this. Now that a significant consumer demand has been demonstrated we'll see amazing things happen here - imaging your iPad8 folding into your back pocket, voice recognition perfected, and 3D hologram compatible!
    • Jun 18 2011: Yes, in many cases, no company wants to be first in marketing a new technology, but they all want to be a close second. There are many examples of pioneers who make only one mistake then they are history. Subsequently, huge rewards go to number two, simply for copying the pioneer and fixing the one single mistake. In order to be number two, companies will sit for years waiting for someone else to make the first move.

      A famous example is airliners that fly at high altitude with pressurized cabins. The first ones, the DeHaviland Comet, made by a British company, had one simple flaw, square windows. The airplane structures came apart because cracks propagate from a sharp point. They fell out of the sky. Then other airplane companies made tons of money.

      We live in a society where very, very few people do anything substantial other than going with the flow, finding a way to fit in with what already exists. What fraction of the population truly understands how much harder it is to do something for the very first time, versus simply copying.

      So for an idea to become a new market, there is market risk stacked up on top of all the engineering risks for turning an idea into a product.
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    Jun 16 2011: Where you see its slow adoption, profit wars are in play; where it moves quickly there are fewer entrenched interests obstructing it. Everybody wants smarter, better, faster, but nobody wants to annoy the 600 pound gorilla.
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    Jun 15 2011: Martin, maybe it's the lack of political will and people's aggressive support of this will, and for business, the lack of fast transforming strategies working on the right economic model (profit and equitable, earth-sustainable business model):

    Solution 2. Transformation of our economic systems into an equitable and earth-sustainable economic model. (WEF Global Redesign Initiative, businesses and governments, NGOs)

    Solution 3. Formulation and implementation of global transformation strategies of our industries. (WEF, businesses and governments, NGOs)

    Solution 4. Information campaigns to bring more awareness to people and strengthen our political resolve.:
    - more participation in our electoral process and constant dialog with our political representatives
    - social networks (, Facebook, etc.)
    - political and economic information and social network system to strengthen transparency and accountability

    Solution 5. Information campaigns to bring more awareness to what we can contribute individually, locally or as a nation (, carbon footprint awareness, influence of our buying habits, etc.).

    We also need an information system for solution and reform activities and see our progress and identify activities that needs more effort.
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    Jun 15 2011: (Part 3/3)

    PS: One important aspect to keep in mind is the fact that this issue is highly dependent of the culture. American entrepeneurs seem to be much more optimistic and adventurous than German ones; failures are judged completely differently from what I've heard. I haven't collected first-hand experience with the USA yet, but the German mentality can be pretty much summed up as "If you cawl, you can't fall." (My personal translation of "Wer kriecht, stolpert nicht.") So if the own culture is very conservative and therefore opposed to the own daringness, one should consider the possibility that it might just be the place where one was randomly born, and that the true homeland is located somewhere else. Luckily, we live in a globalized world where such explorations are possible and not necessarily irreversible :)
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    Jun 15 2011: (Part 1/3)

    Well, there are quite some economic reasons for not rushing: Will the innovation be accepted by the customers? Will it last for a while or be outdated within a few years? Can we manage to convince investors? Why not let someone else stomach all the starter problems and simply go with the second generation? Is the tempting cost estimation realistic, or will they rather explode once the project has been initiated? And quite a simple problem can be that the innovation is simply unknown to the business. Imagine how many bands and songs remained unknown for years before suddenly having worldwide success. And when it comes to internet memes, some have slept for decades with no one being able to foresee their massive popularity.

    But all these issues put aside, there is another barrier that should never be underestimated. Max Planck once stated: "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." And I find this wise insight confirmed again and again. Isn't that shocking? Science should be more than any other field about the competition of the best ideas and arguments. If conservatism reigns even here, what does that tell us about the rest of humanity? Well, according to my experience, humans are far from being primarily rational beings; they rather apply rationality only where they view it as necessary. And even when it comes to economic questions, they relatively seldom decide for it.
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    Jun 14 2011: IP protection does take time, but to me the bigger issue lies in adoption. The devil's in the details. Innovations take a while to gain adoption because, using history as a guide, people have come to expect that early versions of new innovations are #1 too expensive and #2 flawed. The majority of people (aside from early adopters) will wait until an innovation has been "road tested" by the early adopters and the bugs/quirks have been eradicated. Had innovators perfect foresight and perfect analytical capabilities, they might be able to conceptualize, design and build a perfect product right off the bat. If this was the norm (and thus the standard expectation), money would not be an issue, as investors can move very quickly once they believe in a project. In fact, they compete ruthlessly. So, if a project was a guaranteed success from a functional perspective, financiers would be comfortable providing it with more money upfront, knowing that the discounted cash flows from that project would be assured. If consumers also believed that the project was guaranteed to be as good as its developers claimed, then they would not feel the usual hesitation, and would see no reason to wait for the early adopters to have all the fun. This would allow innovations to scale directly to the mass market.
  • Jun 14 2011: Technology usually takes a while to diffuse or evolve from one that it once was
    I think, the habits take the advantage, it's so easy to do what we are doing for years...

    But where to find these informations somewhere else than on TED? I think it's our duty to spread these informations to the appropriate persons.

    the people of the indusrty make most of the choices to put certain thing out at a certain time
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    Jun 11 2011: My initial question is about new technology, with little or no drawbacks compared to current technology. With a net gain of productivity/efficiency/profitability over the old technology, it still takes a long time for the market to adopt new technology. Why is this? Take "Whalepower" for example, why is this technology not used for large scale wind generator parks today?
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        Jun 11 2011: I don't really have a good answer, hence the question. But I agree with you that money issues probably has a lot to do with it. Many people in power is skeptical of new technology, and is unwilling to be the first to adopt technology that has previously only been tested in labs or by scientists.
        Still, it strikes me as odd to see so much ingenious technology presented in TEDtalks, from several years ago, while so little of it is available in the market today. Also, many companies does not only care about the next quarterly results, but do invest heavily in long-term R&D. But maybe its an inherent resistance in large corporations to be fluid enough to implement new technology? Maybe its just as much a matter of convenience?
        I also believe you may have a point with regards to patents and copyright. Open source technology on the web has a much faster diffusion of technology compared with proprietary "hardware".
        I started thinking about this after reading Steven Johnson's, "Where good ideas come from" from the TED book club. His theory is that the only way to speed up the diffusion of innovation, is to share your ideas/technology with others, so that the community as a whole can work together to implement new ideas and technology, rather than trying to sell something by yourself to the rest, having to convince every new customer that this is a good thing.
        • Jun 14 2011: The point you make in your last paragraph above is perfectly true. It works very well as long as creative people give their ideas away. Not all people want to work without rewards. Those who don't undersrtand creativity might often believe that new ideas come out of nowhere, rather than from creative people spending many hours, days, years, or even their whole life's work.
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          Jun 15 2011: In this day in age, it makes sense for people to be reluctant to work without reward. A great example (I believe shown by Steven Johnson) is of the software development company which gives it's employees X amount of hours each month to do whatever they want (I have heard Google does similarly), with the only stipulation being that ideas must all be shared at the end of the day. This gives an opportunity for highly skilled, creative people, to take time on their own and, not only have fun developing something of interest to them, but contribute to the development of something which could be much bigger, especially when presented to other like-minded engineers with potential to collaborate.
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      Jun 11 2011: No money is being productive
  • Jun 11 2011: It is also important to see that the technology is rising at a much faster rate. between two technology changes there needs to be enough time for the people to adjust to the older one and also get value for their money for the investment made in using the previous technology by using it for a few years at least...
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    Jun 11 2011: Speed up = getting people angry and organized

    Why it is not speedy = profit
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      Jun 14 2011: Completely disagreed.
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        Jun 14 2011: So you disagreed there is profit in waste? That you cannot make more money off of updating and newer products, then, making one super product? Multi-items = one awesome item in profit? No way. There is no long term money value in green products or green energy because they are self efficient... they do not run out that easily or need to be refilled...

        The greatest revolutions in history happened during famines, depressions, national wealth deteriorating and anything else that created a unionization of communities...

        How do you completely disagreed? Exactly?