Graham Plaster

culture + diplomacy + ethics + smart power + technology + humanities + entrepreneurship + philosophy

Disrupting Disruption

Has anyone else noticed how cliche “innovation” has become around DC?  The next cliche to come our way, after Silicon Valley tosses it to the east coast scrap heap, will possibly be “disruption”.  I am bullish on both terms because they attract good people, but also just a little critical.

While innovation and disruption will remain the tags we gather around in entrepreneurial circles, there is a growing need to disrupt the cause of disruption by challenging the premises of innovation.

What are the premises?

  • The demand to innovate comes from a keen awareness of being too far behind the technology curve.  The premise is that if we are behind, we are too vulnerable.
  • The demand to innovate comes from a vague awareness of climbing national debt and the interesting idea of running a lean startup country.  The premise is that our nation will eventually face austerity measures which will (like sequestration) impair our ability to defend ourselves.
  • The demand to disrupt comes from specific experiences of individuals who have seen a bureaucracy waste time, money and employee quality of life.  The premise is that this can be fixed through process or technology innovation.


there is a growing need to disrupt the cause of disruption


Is there room to challenge these premises?

I think one of the first considerations I would bring to light is technology curves, mentioned recently on the A16Z podcast interview with @BenedictEvans

Benedict makes the salient point that technology tends to work its very best right before extinction. In other words, at the very moment that everything seems to be working well with all of your technology, something else is being created under your nose that may render what you are using obsolete.

So there is an obvious cost-benefit analysis that needs to take place.  Is it better to run optimally on technology that is about to be disrupted, or be an early adopter of new technology even if it does not work optimally?  The right answer will depend on all of the variables – how much much of an improvement does the new technology offer, how affordable is the transition, how much can the new technology integrate with older tech? etc.

Another consideration is whether we are talking about moonshot innovation (Zero to 1 innovation, as @peterthiel likes to call it) versus applied innovation, which is innovating around a clearly articulated and funded demand signal.  On one hand, a moonshot is the kind of effort that really galvanizes industries and governments to make great leaps for mankind.  On the other hand, high risk innovation is exactly the thing that comes under highest scrutiny in light of increasing national debt. The lean startup model becomes increasingly attractive as moonshots fail.  But as Thiel points out, Silicon Valley investors make their money back on moonshots alone (I paraphrase).  He argues (disruptively) against diversification and for (the principle of) monopoly. Thiel points to Tesla as a great example of moonshot innovation, but it is interesting to note how he acknowledges Elon Musk took advantage of a window of opportunity for a uniquely high level of government support of his risk.

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