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Disruptive by Design: To Disrupt the Future, Study Technology's History

The development of a historical mind within innovators is key to enabling disruptive innovation. To design the future, you must know the past.

By Maj. Ryan Kenny, USA

Want to be disruptive, I mean truly disruptive? Try delving into history while surrounded by software engineers and app developers. Watch how the presence of a book on Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace in the 19th century raises eyebrows at your next scrum team meeting. Be passionate about the history of technology, and you will disrupt.

I recently completed a short course on the history of computer science. Accounts of generations of scientists and engineers stepping from one advancement to the next through iterative problem solving efforts provided rich details about how computers progressed and the thinking of those working to advance the broader field of study.

A broad look at a technology’s path provides clues to make problem formation more efficient. Studying this history offers many lessons learned and reduces the likelihood of fruitless trial-by-error engineering. If you know where others failed and succeeded in the past, you start from a better position, able to see both the trees and the forest.

Studying the history of a technology’s development enriches understanding of how a technology arrived at a certain design, and where it likely will head. Understanding the context of a technology’s rise offers clues for today’s environment. What confluence of events in the past sparked change? What factors in society, organizations and individuals have consistently stymied innovation? Know those answers, and you are better prepared to time innovation and navigate complex production realities.

For example, in the early 1950s, inventors and investors alike recognized how low-cost electronic transistors would transform the computer industry, and they moved quickly to establish products and businesses to take advantage of this development. Similarly, over the past decade, the explosion of mobile devices and their inexpensive components has catalyzed a sea change in technology and society.

The engineers and companies ready to take advantage of the rise of mobile devices did not have to relearn the lessons from the early transistor days. They knew their history. However, knowing the past did not mean they were prepared for all problems. For example, inexpensive sensors distributed ubiquitously led to a proliferation of data. This glut of information, at first overwhelming, provided opportunity for others to innovate and inspired the rise of big data, analytics and machine learning. They discovered new solutions, the history of which, innovators should study.

The military historian, Elliot Cohen, in a 2005 lecture on the value of history for military strategists said, “As important as the study of history for military strategists is the acquisition of the historical mind—that is, a way of thinking that uses history as a mode of inquiry … The historical mind will detect differences as much as similarities between cases, avoiding false analogies, and [will] look for the key questions to be asking. It will look for continuity but also for more important discontinuities; it will look for linkages between data points, but not be too quick to attribute causation … For that reason, the historical education of civilian and military strategists is more, not less, important in an age of rapid change.”

For innovators in any field, understanding the history of their technology provides the same value that Cohen so eloquently articulates. The development of a historical mind within innovators is key to enabling disruptive innovation. To design the future, you must know the past.

Maj. Ryan Kenny, USA, is a U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies–Advanced Strategic Planning and Policy Goodpaster Fellow pursuing his Ph.D. on policy concerns of artificial intelligence and decision making within the Engineering and Public Policy Program at Carnegie Mellon University. He created an online forum to foster discussions on emerging technologies at www.militarycommunicators.org. The views expressed here are his alone and do not represent the views and opinions of the U.S. Defense Department, U.S. Army or other organizations with which he has had an affiliation.