How disruptive innovation enables effective protest


Last time, I talked about how protesting a single oil company wasn’t an effective way to effect change. Instead, I argued for reducing car-dependency through land use changes.

This undermining of a business model is known as disruptive innovation, and I think it can be a useful idea to think about when you’re working toward your own larger goals (and protesting against your own particular injustices).

Get out of the trees

To me, a protest ends up feeling good but accomplishing little. The canonical example is the tree-sitter, sitting in the old growth forest that the logging company is trying to clear cut in order to put in a highway or make paper or mine for gold or whatever it is that’s causing the trees’ destruction. Does the tree sitter really believe that after nesting 20 feet up in the air for a few weeks, the logging company is going to sit back and say, “Gosh, what have we been doing all these years? We shouldn’t cut down trees! Let’s start making Tiddlywinks instead!” They are a logging company; cutting down trees is what logging companies do. Should they cease to do that, they will no longer be a logging company. And most companies do not put themselves willingly out of business.

Is this effective? Photo courtesy of Art Poskanzer
Is this effective?
Photo courtesy of Art Poskanzer

But many powerful, incredibly rich companies do go out of business. Usually, the way this happens is through disruptive innovation.

Mama took my Kodachrome away

To illustrate my point, let’s talk about Kodak. Kodak pretty much ruled the world of cameras for the majority of the last hundred years. But its status as the undisputed market leader caused it to get complacent. When the world of digital photography started its inexorable rise, Kodak was not in the forefront of this charge. And why would they be? They were making money hand-over-fist in the film industry. Assuming that film and photo storage would continue in the future the way it had in the past, Kodak lost valuable momentum, and allowed traditionally non-photographic companies such as Panasonic to take over. Kodak never recovered. Nowadays, when people think of Kodak—and it isn’t often, unless you’re a photographer or interested in retro—it’s the Kodak Picture Kiosk you still find in some pharmacies or the song Kodachrome. What relevance does Kodak have today?

If not film, what about newspapers? Forget about the shift in people reading their news online (and expecting it for free), recall that much of the margins that newspapers enjoyed were due to their status as town water cooler. I refer of course to the classifieds. And then Craig Newmark, an unassuming man if their ever was one, set up shop and obliterated a business model.

Best Buy has become a showroom for people to try out gadgets before using their smartphone and purchasing it on Amazon. Amazon itself threatens to become the only place you buy anything. It’s already helped to take out an entire book chain (Borders, though they equally brought it on themselves); who knows what’s next?. Blockbuster put almost every mom and pop video rental store out of business, and then got sideswiped by Hulu, BitTorrent, and Redbox. File sharing and the music industry; enough said.

In all of these cases, clear market leaders were either asleep at the wheel or locked into their historic technology, unaware that the world was about to pass them by. Some of these disruptions were unintentional, but I’m sure that some of them were intentional as well. And this is a good thing.

All we are saying is give disruptive innovation a chance

What I quite like about disruptive innovation is not the schadenfreude of seeing a company not anticipate its own downfall, but it’s that it gives me hope that even the most entrenched of negative influences can be overturned.

So what can you do? You have your passion, your cause, the idea that ignites a fire inside you, one that keeps you up at night staring at the ceiling, the injustice you wish to fight.

You can’t fight the entrenched powers head-on. Think about disruptive innovation. Think of a way to sidestep the problem, not bash your head against it.

In the case of decreased power concentrated in the oil companies, the answer is to reduce our dependency on oil due to our planning of our towns and public space, not to “boycott” anyone.

What is the disruption that will help further your cause?

Comments are closed.