Technological paradigms: an idea developed by Dosi (1982) and others to describe the way innovation become path dependent and change incremental – i.e. once a technological paradigm takes hold, change takes place only within that outlook and its associated procedures and problem-definitions. This is in keeping with Kuhn’s scientific paradigms and the notion that transitions between paradigms—the downfall of phlogiston, the rise of Copernicus—are revolutionary in the true sense of the word.

The idea of tech paradigms has fallen out of fashion in recent works of economic history. But it still feels helpful to describe the way technological breakthroughs take a long time to change how we think. Technology changes and then, 20, 30, 50 years later, we realise we need to change. Think how long we stuck (and are still sticking) to these old-fashioned ways of thinking:

  • IT project management – which, in the early decades of the ICT revolution, we first approached in the same hierarchical way we’d approached project management under Fordist mass-production. Now, this approach is giving way to agile and iterative working in multidisciplinary teams, and this is starting to unleash ICT’s transformative potential. Even now, though, major project like Britain’s Universal Credit reform, were started with an outlook more suited to the previous paradigm.
  • Data analysis – think how, in the 1980s and 1990s, we digitised data analysis by simply shifting our paper ledgers onto a computer screen – think how similar Excel looks to a paper ledger. Now that the ICT revolution is maturing, data storage and analysis is becoming unstructured, and data lakes combined with machine learning and neural networks, are opening up previously unimagined possibilities.
  • Sharing/peer-to-peer – and think how, even now, whole industries are trying to resist this entirely inevitable transition: London’s black cabs trying to resist it with regulation to protect their monopoly, the hotel industry trying to resist Airbnb in various ways. Both doomed, and both probably knowing it, but both nonetheless unable to transition into the new way of thinking.

Moments like these capture both the deeply disruptive nature of the new technology and the sticky nature of the previous technology. As Carlota Perez says:

The irony is that, when the innovation potential of the prevailing revolution has been exhausted, and its markets saturated, it is the original success in implementing that paradigm which ends up becoming an inertial force that delays the diffusion of the next revolution and the reaping of its full benefits.”

Spot on—that’s exactly why companies find it so hard to adapt. Because the systems, processes, and qualities that made them successful in the old paradigm are precisely the systems, processes, and qualities that will make them fail in the new one.

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