Dynamics of technology life cycle unfold opportunities and threats. Often, embryonic beginning keeps potentials latent, posing uncertainties about prospects and threats. Because of it, innovation opportunities are fraught with pervasive uncertainties. Of course, the invention and growth of new technologies unfold innovation opportunities. They also fuel reinvention and reinnovation, fueling creative waves of destruction. In some instances, those new waves cause destruction to mature products and associated jobs. Due to the switching failures, incumbent highly successful firms sometimes suffer from disruptive effects, leading to the migration of inventions across the boundaries of firms and countries. Along with new jobs, firms, and industries, technology dynamics also cause destruction. In some instances, those effects cause transformational effects unfolding industrial revolutions. In retrospect, the technology life cycle unfolds with creations and destructions, demanding to be watchful on the growth, maturity, and obsolesce of technology life cycles.
Technologies are like living things. They are born in an embryonic form. At the beginning of the life cycle, technologies are faint, creating confusion about the prospects. Like human beings, they need nutrients to grow. For technologies, nutrients are knowledge and ideas, demanding continued research and development. But all technologies are not equally amenable to progression with R&D efforts. Some of them get even stunted. However, in adolescence, many of them become eligible to fuel innovations, whether as new products or advancement of existing products. In some instances, emerging technologies also power the reinvention of existing products, forming creative waves of destruction. Unfolding innovation opportunities also intensify competition in R&D, resulting in rapid growth. Nevertheless, all technologies mature and reach old age, irrespective of the greatness. Interestingly, human beings succeed in giving birth to the next generation, repeating the S-curve-like life cycle.
Drawing lessons from technology life cycle examples:
Typically, the technology life cycle takes the shape of an S-curve. Despite the embryonic beginning, technologies grow and fuel innovations, causing creative and destructive effects. A few examples of life cycles of technologies are given below.
Steam engine fueling the 1st industrial revolution:
We all know that the steam engine was the driver in unfolding the first industrial revolution. Although the first industrial revolution started in the 1760s, the invention of the steam engine took place in 50AD. Due to the lack of scientific knowledge, the invented technology remained stunted for almost 1700 years. After a long break, it started to grow due to the formation of Newtonian Mechanics. Subsequently, scientists and engineers became eligible to scale up the growth of steam engine technology. As a result, over almost 100 years, from the 1760s to 1870s, innovators used the steam engine as a technology core to fuel a series of creatives in industrial production, transportation, etc.—resulting in the first industrial revolution. However, by the end of the 19th century, the performance growth of the steam engine reached saturation.
Electricity and Gasoline engines technology life cycle powering the 2nd industrial revolution:
In the 19th century, the invention of electricity technology took place. By the 1880s, electricity technology reached adolescence powering a series of innovations. Some examples of creations out of electricity technology core starting the 2nd industrial revolution are light bulb, telephone, electric motors, and generators. Despite its journey of over 150 years, this technology is yet to show any sign of saturation.
On the other hand, internal combustion engine technology took a shape in the 1870s. With the invention of the automobile in 1886, the internal combustion engine (ICE) began showing its potential in fueling creative waves. Subsequently, ICE-powered automobiles went in diffusion in society. Innovators also started using ICEs to replace steam engineering in industrial productions, transportation, and many other areas.
The ICE and electricity became the core technologies in fueling a series of reinventions and innovations leading to the unfolding of the 2nd industrial revolution. However, unlike electricity, ICE technology core started showing saturation by the end of the 20th century. It seems that electricity has been taking over the role of ICE in key applications. Perhaps, the unique role of ICE in powering automobiles is about to be taken over by electrical batteries and motors. Hence, it may be fair to state that not all technologies show the same growth trend and maturity time period.
Transistor technology invention led to the 3rd industrial revolution and uprising of Japan:
For the purpose of replacing the electromechanical switch in the telephone system, scientists at Bell Labs invented a solid-state switch in 1947. This is called Transistor. In the early days, the potential of the transistor was quite latent. Hence, American electronics companies like RCA and Texas instruments did not see much innovation opportunity out of it. Unlike giant dominant American and European electronics firms, a Japanese firm Sony envisioned its possibility. Hence, they embarked on a serious mission of advancing this embryonic technology core and using it in reinventing Radio and Television. Subsequently, Sony succeeded in transistor radio and television. Furthermore, Sony’s this success led to the destruction of the business of incumbent firms like RCA. Along with Sony, many other Japanese companies developed core competence in transistor-based innovation, creating a modern industrial economy.
Besides Sony’s successes, there was an intense competition in fine-tuning transistors leading to VLSI chips and using them to drive reinvention and reinnovation in the broad area of computer, communication, business process automation, and intelligent manufacturing. The embryonic beginning of Transistor and the successive innovation successes out of it indicate that the latent potential of technologies creates uncertainties. Hence, often, dominant incumbent firms delay their resource allocation from profitable businesses to nurture loss-making potentials. Due to such delays, sometimes, tiny new entrants grow as large firms while causing destruction to once-dominant incumbent firms.
Electronic image sensor fueling creative wave destruction to film-based imaging:
With the introduction of the Kodak camera in 1888, an R&D race started advancing image recording media. Shortly industry focused on finetuning celluloid film (synthetic plastic), invented in the 1860s and 1870s. The race of improving the film’s performance in capturing images continued over almost 100 years, reaching saturation by the 1970s. Fortunately, in 1969, scientists at Bell Laboratories invented an alternative technology core. They invented a charge-coupled device (CCD) for capturing photons as electrons. But it emerged in a primitive form, producing only an 8×8 noisy image. Hence, many companies, including Kodak, overlooked the latent potential, or suffered from innovators’ dilemma syndrom.
Surprisingly, Sony envisioned a potential insight this noisy, poor resolution image sensor. Hence, Sony embarked on R&D on advancing CCD, leading to the debut of digital cameras in the 1980s. Continued refinement led to fueling a creative wave of digital imaging, causing destruction to the film camera products, firms, and industry.
Lessons from examples
These examples indicate that technology growth fuels innovation, causing transformation in society. Some technologies fuel creative waves due to the reinvention of existing products by changing their mature technology cores with emerging ones. Furthermore, not all technologies have similar growth behavior in their life cycles. For example, Steam engines remained stunted for almost 1700 years. Their growth demands a flow of scientific knowledge. Irrespective of the greatness, all technologies get birth in an embryonic form, posing uncertainties in future growth. It seems detecting innovation potentials during the early stage is quite daunting. Consequentially, even technologically superior firms fail to respond appropriately. This challenge leads to the rising of creative waves by new entrants, often causing destruction to existing firms. Consequentially, due to the varying responses on rising technology potentials, innovations evolve and migrate across the boundaries of firms and countries.
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