Innovation journeys and “proof of concept”

New technologies have the “liability of newness“.  People are understandably worried about what might go wrong, who would be paying for the cost of the clean-up and so on.  And those who are quite happy making money/sustaining their power from the current way of doing things (aka “incumbents”) are not above a little lying/fixing of results to smear that scary new technology. For example-

In meetings with the Minister of Environment, the incumbent repeatedly claimed that the entrepreneur’s LED light was not ready for the market. During Taskforce Lighting meetings (issued by the ministry to increase energy efficiency), the incumbent brought along scientists who supported this claim. The minister only learned that this ‘authoritative’ statement was false when the entrepreneur actually demonstrated the functioning of the LED light in person during a meeting (entrepreneur 1, 2010).
(Smink et al. 2015: 92)

Sometimes results can be denied, unless the entrepreneur has a way of getting to the top.

In Men, Machines and Modern Times the American historian Elting Morison tells the story of the introduction into the US Navy of continuous-aim firing – a method of keeping guns trained on an enemy ship when both your ship and the enemy’s are moving up and down and steaming in different directions at the same time.
The Navy’s standard method, in Theodore Roosevelt’s time, employed a very heavy set of gears and a highly trained crew with a kind of football coach/naval captain who gave directions to the crew. Although there was a gunsight, nobody dared put his eye to it because of the recoil of the gun. Sims, a young naval officer, developed a new method which took advantage of the inertial movement of the ship; he simplified the gearing procedure and isolated the sight from recoil, so that it became possible for the operator to keep his eye on the sight and move the gears at the same time. He tested his system and was able to effect a remarkable increase in accuracy.
Sims then wrote to Naval Headquarters, with the aim of having his device officially adopted throughout the fleet, and the navy wrote back that it was not interested. But Sims had the persistence characteristic of technological innovators and he finally persuaded the Navy to test his method of continuous-aim firing. The test, as devised by the Navy, consisted in strapping the device to a solid block in the Navy Yard in Washington where, deprived of the inertial movement of the ship, it failed, proving scientifically that continuous-aim firing was not feasible. Sims was not deterred. Finally he reached President Theodore Roosevelt directly, and the President forced the device down the Navy’s throat. Under these conditions the Navy accepted it, and achieved a remarkable increase in accuracy in all theatres.
Morison points out that the Navy understandably tried to protect the social system of the ship from a technology which was in fact destructive of it. By introducing continuous-aim firing, Sims threatened a specialized, highly trained team, replacing it with an operation in which, in effect, any recruit could serve.
The example is characteristic of social systems, whether a naval ship, an industrial firm, or a community.
The system as a whole has the property of resistance to change. I would not call this property ‘inertia’, a metaphor drawn from physics – the tendency of objects to move steadily along their present course unless a contrary force is exerted on them. The resistance to change exhibited by social systems is much more nearly a form of ‘dynamic conservatism- – that is to say, a tendency to fight to remain the same.
Page 30-1 of Schon, D. 1973. Beyond the Stable State.

And sometime the proof of concept test is just so elegant it takes your breath away-

Link’s first military sales came as a result of the Air Mail scandal, when the Army Air Corps took over carriage of U.S. Air Mail. Twelve pilots were killed in a 78-day period due to their unfamiliarity with Instrument Flying Conditions. The large scale loss of life prompted the Air Corps to look at a number of solutions, including Link’s pilot trainer. The Air Corps was given a stark demonstration of the potential of instrument training when, in 1934, Link flew in to a meeting in conditions of fog that the Air Corps evaluation team regarded as unflyable.[4] As a result, the Air Corps ordered the first six pilot trainers at $3,500 each. [source]

That those last two examples are military is no accident – states invest heavily in R and D if it looks like it will help them kill the Enemy (international or domestic) more efficiently and effectively.  And they’re not above a bit of sharp practice of their own…

A leading military contractor faked tests for a key component in the proposed $27 billion National Missile Defense (NMD) system, according to a former senior engineer for the company.
Dr. Nira Schwartz worked for TRW, a military contractor, helping design a computer program enabling missile interceptors to distinguish between incoming warheads and decoys. The program failed numerous tests. But when Dr. Schwartz requested her superiors communicate these problems to the federal government, she was fired.
TRW certified to the government that interceptors using its computer programs would succeed more than 95 percent of the time in picking out enemy warheads, even if they were hidden by dozens of decoys and other countermeasures. In contrast, the interceptors could do so only 5 to 15 percent of the time, Dr. Schwartz said in court documents…. [source]

What’s my point? I got two.

a.  Experiments can be set up to fail.  Better innovations that do not meet the needs of the gatekeepers/incumbents will be ignored/sabotaged/smeared if they can.

b. Technology appraisal is a very interesting thing…



Schon, D. 1973. Beyond the Stable State. New York: Norton.

Smink, M., Hekkert, M. and Negro, S. 2015. Keeping sustainable innovation on a leash? Exploring incumbents’ institutional strategies. Business Strategy and the Environment, Vol. 24, pp.86-101.


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