Innovation Theory

Clayton Christensen: "The Innovator's Dilemma"

Christensen's classic book, probably the study of innovation most read and revered by the business community itself, seeks to answer a simple question: Why do big, well-managed firms at the tops of their games, with commanding market leadership positions, consistently fail to innovate the revolutionary products that ultimately reformulate industries and lead to their downfall? Before Christensen's study, most people assumed that it was short sightedness, or process lock-in, or failure to properly gauge the market. Christensen's answer, however, was a shocker at the time: none of these things accounts for innovation failure...

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Ray Kurzweil: “The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence”

Celebrated futurist Ray Kurzweil's second book of predictions, published in 1999, charts a narrative of exponential technological change from 1900 to 2099. The author here elaborates his theory of “accelerating returns,” derived from his more encompassing “law of time and chaos"...

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Leveraging Innovation in Large and Small Firm Parterships

Opinion. Short article argues that small firms are better suited to disruptive innovation because they are less structured and suffer from less inertia than large firms, which often struggle to innovate. On the other hand, firm control structures and larger resources make larger firms far more efficient at production and distribution. The author proposes that more large-small partnerships are necessary, and illustrates several potentials models of such partnering.

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Manuel Castells, "The Rise of the Network Society"

Castells’ monumental text is widely considered to be foundational in the study of globalization. Originally published in 1994, with a second edition in 2000 and updated with a new preface in 2010, The Rise of the Network Society traces the profound global changes initiated by the information technology revolution of the 1970s. The result was that society in all of its manifestations was restructured into the form of the digital network, an interlinking of specific nodes into an ever-expanding, information-based structure with its own global logic. In this new topology, global finance and capitalism itself (and production and consumption) is driven entirely by information; this information propagates instantaneously, simultaneously, and often automatically...

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Aras Özgün: "A Common Word"

Özgün here echoes Hardt and Roggero in his analysis of capitalistic production as biopolitical and relying upon the capture of the commons. His most novel contribution to the conversation, however, lies in his articulation of the common with heterogeneity in linguistic communication. Post-Fordist production, unlike its predecessor form, is all about heterogeneity: it produces a commons that is itself heterogeneous, and this heterogeneity is the key to radical innovation by the commons. This is the primary tension between the commons and capitalism: post-Fordist capitalism relies upon constant innovation, which requires the exploitation of potential difference; hence capital’s uneasy relationship with the radically innovative commons.

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Google's Innovation Pathway: Some Classical Ingredients

Everyone acknowledges the role of "serendipity" in the progress of science and technology, where the term means "making desirable discoveries by accident." Picture it as Google co-founder Sergy Brin enjoying zero-gravity at left - a major breakthrough is often something you bump into while happily floating somewhere else. Google has marched from a search algorithm developed by graduate students at Stanford to a search engine and into a dominant position in web advertizing and onward to a global information empire now encompassing the past as well as the future -- with a diplomacy wing being incorporated into Google Ideas. In spite of Google's ubiquity in the global information cloud, was its success in fact an accident?

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Steven Weber, "The Success of Open Source"

Weber’s landmark book analyzes the open source movement from the perspective of political economy. Tracing the history of the movement from the Unix hacker culture of the 1970s through the birth of the legendary open source initiatives of the 1990s to the present (he’s writing in 2004), he is primarily interested in analyzing the factors of the open source process that have lead to its success in producing high quality, extremely complex products without any hierarchical structure and very little monetary incentive. This presents a significant challenge to some of the basic precepts of political economy, according to which such success should be impossible: For one thing, the making of nonexcludable goods (those for which no one can control access) and nonrival goods (those which can be copied indefinitely without incurring expense) is normally...

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Bergquist and Ljungberg, "The Power of Gifts"

Berquist and Ljungberg here attempt to build on the work of Eric Raymond and others who have explained the functioning of the open source community from within in order to provide the basis for the academic theorizing of such communities. They focus on the social customs of existing open source communities, analyzing “netiquette” and the process by which new users are socialized into the gift economy that characterizes open source. They particularly stress the differences between classic gift economies, as theorized by Mauss and others, and online, digital gift economies.

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Paul Edwards, "The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America" Part I

Paul Edwards' book, appearing in 1996, attempts to re-write the 20th century history of computing from the point of view of an "outsider;" that is, someone who is not a computer engineer or programmer, and thus (presumably) not so caught up in computer discourse that he takes its metaphors for truth, its precepts as givens, and its development as deterministic. He sees the development of the computer as deeply intertwined with the rise of Cold War discourse, and primarily focuses--in the first half of the book--on the military development and deployment of computer technology. He attempts to contextualize and analyze the events his narrative covers from the point of view of Science and Technology Studies and Donna Haraway's cyborg discourse, emphasizing the political and social role the computer has played as metaphor and ideological construct.

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Langdon Winner, "Do Artifacts Have Politics?"

Langdon Winner's classic article argues, in the vein of “soft” technological determinism, that technology determines certain social foundations. In this case, that (at least some) technology is inherently political: certain technologies are democratic, others autocratic, by their very nature. That is, regardless of the intent behind their invention or deployment, they have concrete social consequences that can be qualified in political terms. While it is energy production that is ultimately at stake, Winner's most salient example is the series of expressways erected around Long Island by Robert Moses in the 1930s.

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Joel Mokyr, "Evolution and Technological Change: a new Metaphor for Economic History?"

Joel Mokyr takes a bold historiographic step and proposes a comprehensive theory of technological change (innovation) based upon evolutionary theory. In his model, individual technologies are the players in a vast web of interactions that spawn new technologies according to standard and predictable rules. His theory differentiates between technique, understood as a set of instructions for producing something, and technological artifacts themselves, or "technique in action." The first is analogous to genotype, the second to phenotype. Innovation then becomes a question of emergence--bottom-up behavior within a chaotic system--rather than the result of top-down design by a few "inventors." Mokyr calls this "open system behavior," and we must note that along with being emergent, innovation is seen here as being undirected, inexorable, and dynamic. It never slows down, and never occurs in isolation, contrary to monolithic, top-down models.

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Charles Weiss, William B. Bonvillian, "Structuring an Energy Technology Revolution"

In this thoughtful, comprehensive book, Weiss and Bonvillian argue for a coherent, long-term approach to U.S. energy policy that balances market/demand pull and technology push. The former, they insist (embodied in a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system) is not sufficient to fundamentally change either U.S. energy independence or GHG emissions. They call for "a new integrated analytic framework." The framework would need to be technology neutral; it must stimulate private sector competition, not promote or require any particular technology. It must also take into account that new technologies don't face an open, new market, but rather one saturated with cost-effective, politically supported, popular incumbent technologies; we should think of this competitive space as an "anti-commons."

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Zach Horton, "Charles Babbage, the Absent Father"

This paper examines 19th century English inventor Charles Babbage's paradoxical standing among historians of technology and computing. In the 1830s he designed a purely mechanical, general purpose, programmable calculating device he dubbed the Analytical Engine. In its logical design and general capabilities it is nearly identical to the modern computer.

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David Edgerton, "The Shock of the Old"

Edgerton's basic historiographic thesis in “The Shock of the Old” is that innovation-centric accounts of the history of technology give us a very distorted understanding of technology's effects on society and society's effects on technology—an understanding that can be corrected only by looking at the history of technology in use. Edgerton's book is an extended argument for the inadequacy of the former approach, as well as a positive narrative of technology as it has been used from the year 1900 to the present. Thus his book embodies two highly interrelated but separate projects—one negative, one positive.

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John Staudenmaier, "Recent Trends in the History of Technology"

Staudenmaier, writing in 1990, reflects on the status of the history of technology as a field. He notes that internalists (historians focused primarily on the detailed inner workings of technology and technological systems), contextualists (those focused on how social changes determine the forms and inner workings of technology), and externalists (those focused not on the inner workings of technology, but only its symbolic place in society). Within the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT), Studenmeier notes that the contextualists are winning this battle.

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Thomas Hughes, "Networks of Power : Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930"

Hughes' book, an exhaustive study of electrification from 1880 to 1930, primarily focuses on the development of electric grids in the United States, Great Britain, and Germany. Hughes is primarily concerned with working out a complex conceptual framework for understanding technology as system. He characterizes electrical systems as fundamentally constituted not only of interconnected technological artifacts (generators, couplers, relays, lamps) but also local, regional, and national political structures, perceived (and manufactured) societal need, geographical features, etc. The form that electric grids take is not determined by internal (mechanical or scientific) necessity, but by external social factors. Thus the electric grid developed very differently depending upon the structures of the local governments that had jurisdiction over them...

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Christopher Newfield, "Is Nanotechnology Changing Scientific Collaboration? Survey Evidence from a Nano-Oriented Campus"

This article presents and interprets the findings of a 2007 survey of 1,939 individuals involved in nanotechnology-related research at a large university in the Western United States. Nanotechnology had long been described by policymakers and researchers themselves as a particularly interdisciplinary field. The survey sought to discover how widely this perspective is held by rank-and-file researchers, and to characterize the nature of the collaboration. The project's three hypotheses, all of which were confirmed by the survey results, were...

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David Edgerton, "From Innovaton To Use: Ten Eclectic Theses on the Historiography of Technology"

Edgerton objects to what he considers a juvenile bias in the field of the history of technology: an obsession with technology-as-innovation. He believes that framing historiographical questions and inquiries in terms of innovation leads leaves out most of the real story, and distorts the rest. In particular, it restricts our attention on technology that is new, on regions located within the rich (first) world, on individuals in the privileged class of inventors, on nationalist narratives, and on successful technologies only.

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Nassim Nicholas Taleb: “The Black Swan” (2nd Edition)

Taleb has long made a career on savaging risk modeling; after the 2008 financial crash this gamble paid off handsomely. Just one year before he had published his magnum opus, a lengthy, obsessive, idiosyncratic volume of theories, personal anecdotes, and vicious attacks on various individuals and institutions that had crossed him. The main idea: we are fools if we think we can predict future trends...

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Where do innovations come from?

Report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) claims that U.S. innovation has become far more collaborative in recent years, meaning that fewer private firms are producing the most significant innovations on their own; the government partners with industry in the majority of cases. The report looks at the the top 100 innovations from R&D Magazine for the past forty years and finds that while 80% of these award-winning innovations were produced solely by firms in 1970, over two-thirds of them are now produced by government-industry collaborations.

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Eric von Hippel, "Democratizing Innovation"

In this volume longtime innovation researcher von Hippel makes a broad and strong case for the existence of a general shift toward the democratization of innovation in the form of user-centered design increasingly dominating the process of product innovation. He heralds this shift as enhancing public welfare and providing new opportunities for both users and manufacturers. Building on his extensive previous work on user innovation (which includes both individual users and firms that use the products of others in their own business), he outlines a general model of user innovation that attempts to explain why users innovate...

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Michael Hardt: "The Common in Communism"

Hardt here focuses on “the common,” relating it to his larger project of rearticulating global Marxism vis-a-vis the immaterial or “biopolitical” mode of production of late capitalism: that is, the production of non-industrial, non-physical goods, including ideas, information, code, affects, social relationships and networks, etc. Hardt and others argue not that such goods have replaced industrial or pre-industrial goods, or even that quantitatively most labor is knowledge work, but rather that the central organizing paradigm of capitalism, structuring all labor, has shifted to the biopolitical mode...

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Yahya M. Madra and Ceron Özselçuk: "Jouissance and Antagonism in the Forms of the Commune: A Critique of Biopolitical Subjectivity"

Madra and Özselçuk find that with regard to the construction of subjectivity, both the governmentality literature (as typified by Foucault) and the post-Fordist literature (as typified by Hardt and Negri) are compromised by embedded forms of behaviorism in their attempts to theorize the neoliberal subject. Foucault errs in assuming that neoliberalism actually produces the rational subject that it posits, when in fact this subject is a fiction (that even the neoliberal literature doesn’t assume is real at the level of the individual).

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Lyon Workshop Videos

These videotaped sessions are from the "States of Innovation: Research Policy and Practice After 10 Years of the National Nanotechnology Initiative" Workshop held in Lyon, France, April 28-30, 2010.

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K. Eric Drexler, "Engines of Creation"

Drexler's now-classic text, which Ray Kurzweil claims (on the back “cover” of etext-only Version 2.0) “established the revolutionary new field of nanotechnology,” presented, upon its first publication in 1986, an astonishingly comprehensive vision of a nanofuture that he claimed would be ushered in by a “replication breakthrough,” forever changing how humans interact with each other and the world at large. Drexler's book is written for a popular audience, and its clear intent is to help bring about the transformations he envisions. That is, by envisioning them he provides a roadmap, a dream, a nano-imagining that can be transmitted to others, taken up as a cause, worked toward as an enabling (science) fiction.

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Full-Text Ebook: "The Future of Thinking" by Cathy Davidson and David Goldberg

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Paul Edwards, "The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America" Part II

In the second half of his book, Paul Edwards considers new subject positions constructed by Cold War computer discourse. Where the first half of his book focuses on the development of computer hardware, the second explores software, and Artificial Intelligence in particular. Once again, he shows that “closed world” discourse dictated the direction that computer development took (again often as a result of enormous military funding through ARPA) while at the same time the metaphors activated by computer development were mobilized to change our own subject positions as humans.

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David Mowery, "Federal policy and the development of semiconductors, computer hardware, and computer software: A policy model for climate-change R&D?"

Mowery identifies five components of the innovation system (considering the sectors of semiconductors, computer hardware, and computer software). The first four rest with the federal government: 1. R&D funding 2. procurement 3. IPR weakening 4. antitrust On top of these rest: 5. large commercial markets down the road

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Robert Gordon, "Who turned the mechanical ideal into mechanical reality?"

Robert Gordon explicitly challenges the traditional historiographical (and popular) assumption that machines replaced skilled labor during the 19th century rise of the "American System" of interchangeable parts manufacture— that is, that innovations in the manufacturing process lead to a degradation of artisans' skills. Gordon approaches this issue indirectly, by analyzing the gap between the ideal that new manufacturing processes were designed to realize and the actual form that they inaugurated. The ideal was a completely standardized system of machine-made parts that would be identical to each other, with a concomitant separation of the manufacture of individual parts and the assembly of the final product. This system was originally implemented by the U.S. Department of War at the Springfield and Harper's Ferry armories. In reality, this ideal was not achieved with machinery alone, as is often assumed.

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Kelly Sims Gallagher, "Acting in Time on Energy Policy"

The general theme of this book, which comprises a number of essays treating different facets of U.S. Energy policy, is that the U.S. government has been consistently short-sighted in its responses to looming energy crises, doing just enough to satisfy short-term goals and nothing more. If we remain on this path, it will lead to drastically increased costs down the road. The sooner we act, the less it will cost. Kelly Sims Gallagher discusses Climate Change in her chapter (which kicks off the book). She details international attempts made since 1990 to combat climate change, noting that while a number of industrial countries have met or exceeded their emission reduction goals (related in particular to the Kyoto protocol), the world's two largest emitters, the U.S. and China—together accounting for 46% of global GHG emissions—have increased their emissions drastically in the past twenty years.

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Richard Newell, "A U.S. Innovation strategy for Climate Change Mitigation"

Newell here analyzes the market difficulties that act as barriers to climate change mitigation, along with the role played by science and technology innovation in the U.S., and outlines a plan to optimize federal investments in basic and applied research. Newell's plan is fiscal in nature; he focuses directly on the question of how federal money should best be spent. He identifies as two main barriers to climate change mitigation efforts a lack of market incentive to adopt GHG-reducing technologies and the underfunding of basic research in industry due to difficulty in recouping such long-term, public-interest investments.

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Christopher Newfield, "Risky Business: Why Public Is Losing to Private in American Research"

Newfield here explores how narratives of public funding function within public and political spheres, while at the same time analyzing the role that public funding plays in technological innovation networks. He articulates the interplay between the two and tracks changes in each over the past thirty years through his own narrative device: a multi-generational extension of the central narrative of the 1983 film “Risky Business.” Newfield begins with an analysis of the film itself, noting that it provides a snapshot of the political, economic, and educational zeitgeist of the early '80s, as well as a popular hero narrative appropriate to that milieu...

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David Hounshell, "On the Discipline of the History of American Technology"

Writing in 1981, Hounshell identifies the discipline of the history of technology as being at a crossroads: either technological historians will broaden their inquiries into the greater sociological discourse, examining technology as a social phenomenon, or they will focus ever more narrowly on microhistories of technology, which are particularly and mostly concerned with the how of technology: the intricate inner workings of technological artifacts and systems.

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Benoît Godin, "Making Science, Technology and Innovation Policy: Conceptual Frameworks as Narratives"

Godin examines a number of “conceptual frameworks” used by science and technology policy makers in the United States and Europe from the 1930s to the present. He identifies eight such frameworks (or “frames”), arranged in three successive generations. The first, articulated from within the academy, included a theory of “Cultural Lags” between material culture (the culture of innovation) and adaptive culture (the users of technology), as well as the “linear model of innovation,” which suggests that innovation follows a linear sequence from basic research to applied research to development.

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Christopher Newfield, "Avoiding Network Failure: The Case of the National Nanotechnology Initiative"

Christopher Newfield discusses the role of the federal government in correcting “market failure” by acting as an investor of last result for high-risk technologies that may have large eventual payoffs for society, yet which require many years—or decades—to develop. He uses the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) as a case study for this form of government research. Drawing on David Edgerton's The Shock of the Old, he emphasizes that the amount of money spent nationally on R&D does not correlate with a higher GDP.

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Patrick McCray, "From Lab to iPod: A Story of Discovery and Commercialization in the Post–Cold War Era"

McCray traces the history of “giant magnetoresistance” (GMR)—a phenomenon resulting from the nature of electron spin—from its simultaneous discovery in 1988 by Peter Grünberg and Albert Fert (2007 Nobel Prize winners) through its commercial development and application within the electronics industry. Early on, engineers at IBM harnessed the basic science of GMR to develop a “spin valve” that dramatically improved the performance and size of their hard drives, a technology they licensed to all leading hard drive manufacturers, leading to a revolution in that particular industry. This early success lead to the perception within the broader electronics industry that GMR could be exploited in a wide array of portable electronics, dubbed “spintronics”.

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