Our life cycle has a typical S curve-like pattern. It begins the journey in an embryonic form and experiences slow growth in the early stage. After ramping up, the growth slows down and reaches saturation. The S curve is the typical change or progress model of technologies, innovations, businesses, and projects over time. S Curve model helps us comprehend the unfolding progress, resulting in better decision-making, preparation, monitoring and control.
A typical S curve model has three distinct phases: (1) infancy, (2) ramping up, and (3) maturity. In infancy, things are unclear, and growth direction is vague. Once the uncertainty of the infancy stage is overcome, directional movement takes place, resulting in ramping up. Eventually, progress slows down and reaches saturation. Sometimes, the next generation takes off, forming a follow-up S curve. Notably, in technology Innovation evolution, successive S curves keep emerging as old technology matures, and new one emerges and accelerates.
S Curve in Technology and Innovation
Like human beings, technology, and innovation life cycles have an S Curve-like pattern, explained further in the following sections.
Technology Life Cycle
Technologies are born in embryonic form. Often, the science part is not very clear at the beginning. Besides, some technologies are invented out of accidents and curiosity-driven experimentation. For example, Edison invented incandescent light bulb technology through experiments. Similarly, a Raytheon engineer experienced pleasant surprise upon observing the melting of candy bars in a microwave radiation laboratory. However, due to insufficient insights into internal functioning, inventors cannot find a clue to scale them up. Hence, they are not scalable at the beginning and suffer from infancy.
However, further investigation offers a hidden clue showing specific behavior. For example, despite the empirical investigation, Edison could not explain the underlying cause of the production of photons or light due to the passing of current through filament. Hence, despite demonstrating a light bulb, he could not find a way to systematically improve light production to expand life and reduce energy wastage. Through further investigation, scientists figured out the cause of the light emission due to changes in the energy levels of electrons. Such insights led to changing materials for improving the efficiency of light production. As a result, Edison’s light bulb technology ramped up. Besides, such development intensifies R&D investment for profit-making competition, contributing to further ramping up. However, due to natural limits, such progress slowed and reached saturation. Hence, a product life cycle also has S curve model.
Like Edison’s light bulb technology, irrespective of greatness, all technologies experience an S Curve-like life cycle. However, not all technologies experience a perfect S Curve life cycle. Due to varying difficulties in scientific advancement, some technologies may experience temporary pause, creating a chasm effect. For example, the progression of the LED light bulb experienced a pause due to the lack of knowledge about the sharpness of blue LED.
Innovation Life Cycle
Technology invention leads to innovations in products and production processes. Innovations’ success depends on the resonance between consumer preferences and technology possibilities. Hence, due to a lack of maturity of technology and limited knowledge about consumer preferences, invariably, all innovations begin the journey in embryonic form. Innovations rapidly grow with the growth of technology and the systematic flow of additional knowledge about consumers’ latent desires. Besides, profit-making competition also plays a vital role in allocating resources. However, like technology, innovations also slow down and reach saturation after the ramping-up phase. Hence, like technology, innovations also have an S Curve life cycle.
Innovation Diffusion Pattern
As explained, at the early stage of the life cycle, technological innovations remain in primitive form. They also emerge as costlier alternatives. People with unique requirements will find them helpful. Hence, only a small group of people will be adopting them. For example, Motorola Dynatec mobile handset weighing 3lbs and costing $3995 found only a few thousand customers. However, its customer base started ramping up due to the advancement of battery and electronics. It ramped up further due to the resonance between technology performance and aesthetically pleasant designs. Eventually, innovation diffusion slows down and reaches maturity—creating an S curve-like pattern.
Episodic Evolution of Technology and Innovation as Successive S Curves
A new technology core is invented to overcome the saturation of technology, innovations and innovation diffusion. Consequentially, products get reinvented due to the change of technology core. However, despite showing superior performance down the road, potential remains latent at the beginning. Hence, all emerging technologies and reinventions invariably begin the journey in a primitive form. Like their predecessors, they also ramp up and reach saturation upon crossing the infancy. Such an episodic evolution of replacing the older generation with the emerging one appears to be at the core of technology and innovation advancement. Hence, a series of S curves of technology and innovation has been unfolding. Consequently, innovation diffusion has also been experiencing one after another S curve life cycle. Such a reality underpins the business cycle.
However, due to the growing role of ideas in giving birth and fueling the next generations, successive S curves of technology, innovation, and diffusion are getting more significant. They have also been demanding growing R&D investment for getting the idea flow as an ingredient.
Winning Startup Life Cycle S Curve
Startups are pursuing reinvention waves. Their growth behavior also resembles the technology and innovation life cycle. However, not all startups win the race. Consequentially, startups failing to remain in the front line of the race keep exiting. Eventually, only a few succeed in graduating from infancy and start ramping up. However, before reaching the technology innovation life cycle saturation, most but one or a couple will exit. Only surviving ones will grow and profit along with the further progression of technological innovation. Due to the maturity of technology and innovation, the growth of winning startups will also reach saturation. To find the next wave of growth, they need to reinvent their products and begin the march to win the next reinvention wave.
Economies of Scale, Scope, and Network effect Life Cycle
Technology advancement also offers an opportunity to expand economies of scale, scope, and network externality effects. It happens due to the growing role of ideas in advancing technology and innovation. Due to the increasing R&D investment in sustaining the idea flow and negligible replication cost of ideas, these three vital economic effects emerge. Winning firms leverage them to scale up their business and outperform their competitors. However, like technology and innovation life cycles, they also show an S Curve-like growth pattern. Consequentially, the business scalability life cycle also follows the S Curve model
Great Idea Life Cycle
Great ideas like digital disruption, artificial intelligence, clean energy, or driving economic growth by leveraging technology possibility start the journey in embryonic form. In the beginning, they cannot show their might. They need a Flow of Ideas as an ingredient to grow. Furthermore, they are powered by the progression of technology and innovation. Hence, upon crossing infancy, they ramp up and suffer from saturation, reaching maturity.
Project Management S Curve
At the beginning of the project, only a few activities take off, opening the pathway for far more actions to roll out. Hence, after a slow progress, the ramping-up phase begins. Subsequently, nearing the completion, activities slow down and come to an end. Therefore, the depiction of relevant cumulative data of a project — such as activities, cost, progress, and person-hours — plotted against time shows an S Curve-like model. Therefore, the project management S Curve refers to plotting project activity, costs, and progress data against time, which typically forms a loose, shallow “S”. The actual shape depends on the nature of projects and their execution. However, the S-curve in project management is a reference model for mobilizing resources and tracking the progress of projects.
Like project management, the depiction of construction progress also shows an S Curve-like life cycle. Both project management and construction have three phases of the life cycle. The infancy period refers to feasibility and preparatory work. Upon completion of the initial phase, implementation activities ramp up, reaching completion or maturity.
S Curve has been a valuable model for comprehending the dynamic life cycle of technology, innovation, diffusion, project, and construction. However, this is a reference model as a guide. The reality differs. They may even pose and slow down during the ramping-up phase. Hence, instead of using the S curve as a ground truth, the focus should be on its variation in the unfolding reality and acting accordingly.