Dan Reus from Openly Disruptive sent along this great guest post for all of us to enjoy.  He’s our guest tomorrow, Tuesday the 23rd of October, at 7pm for our FREE webinar series.  Dan’s going to be talking to us about the power ideas have to shape our future.  You can learn more about Dan at openlydisruptive.org, or take a look at this article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Reserve your spot for our FREE webinar with Dan!

Disruptive innovation is coming (are you ready?)

You might have heard of disruptive innovation – it’s big, paradigm shifting ideas that, when in motion, upset markets and social norms.  Many people think of it as something that happens to you – you’re powerless over the changing world and you have to fight these changes to protect your existence.  Others see disruptive innovation as something that a lone genius unleashes upon an unsuspecting world – like a villain in a James Bond film. I think both views miss the point, and that the truth can empower us all.

In my work with Openly Disruptive, we look at how disruptive innovation happens, and how people’s influence and power rises and falls with it. Over time I’ve come to realize that it’s not the idea that matters, it’s the context in which you use it.

You might have heard that there are no original ideas. I used to think that phrase was pretty cynical, but the more I looked, the more I found out it to be true. Darwin wasn’t the first to see how species evolved. Newton and Leibniz came up with calculus at nearly the same time. Inspired by Dick Tracy and early radiophones in cars, the cell phone first saw use on Star Trek before becoming a personal necessity for billions of people worldwide.

I started to see disruptive innovation as arising when other ideas support a new way of doing things.  These innovations can come to life when someone sees the potential to connect things that have never been connected before, and shares this new connection with others. Disruptors are observers first, and tinkerers second. I call their networks of interconnected ideas “idea ecosystems.”

What a freeing idea! I suddenly saw unchangeable systems as simply supporting ideas that coalesced close enough together to become a new idea ecosystem to be put to use by people and organizations.  The unchangeable systems could be changed if you just watched for which of the ideas that supported it started to lose impact.  To see idea ecosystems in action, we can look at the mainstream food system.

At OD we look at lots of areas, but sustainable food systems were an early interest.  At first, I had seen the “agribusiness” model as unstoppable. There was so much power in it and it seemed that we were destined to produce and consume food in a way that became harder on us and our world every year.

When you look at it from an idea ecosystem perspective, you realize how recent a phenomena it really is.  In the US especially, the mainstream food system is built on four supporting ideas:

  1.  The willing homogenization of our diet to depend on row crops and monocuture
  2. The trend to take every critical process to massive scale through industry (especially after the success of the model in World War II)
  3. The synthetic fertilizer process, which freed us from the limiting efficiencies of naturally occurring fertilizers like guano and manure
  4. Cheap oil – both as a fuel and as a raw material for #2 and #3

To me this is a powerful insight, because I can see that none of these supporting ideas has been around for more than 150 years. They aren’t unstoppable historical trends, and what’s more, at least 3 of the 4 are already starting to lose impact.  The foodie movement is chipping away at #1, #2 is starting to show diminishing returns, and #4 is in question by liberals and conservatives alike.  It turns out that even for its stakeholders,the mainstream food ecosystem is ripe for major changes.

When I see the system this way, I see potential. I see emerging ideas like network theory opening our eyes to different ways to scale our food systems. I see interdependent natural ecosystems being valued for how much they produce with fewer inputs. I see innovations in material science making efficiencies less related to the size of an operation. And I see lots of people interested in a different path. I see potential.

If you see this potential, too, you have the opportunity to be part of disruptive innovation.  This view of the idea ecosystem lets us see an emerging future before others can. What we do with that insight is up to us.