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EmergingTechnologies

EmergingTechnologies - The Emergence of Emerging...

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CALIFORNIA MANAGEMENT REVIEW VOL. 45, NO.1 FALL 2002 50 The Emergence of Emerging Technologies Ron Adner Daniel A. Levinthal D iscussions of technology evolution have offered sharply contrast- ing perspectives of the pace and mechanisms of technological change. On the one hand, we have arguments regarding the gradual, incremental nature of technological change. 1 In contrast, others have offered the image of technological change as being rapid, even dis- continuous. 2 Indeed, the locus classicus of evolutionary perspectives of techno- logical change offers the dramatic imagery of “waves of creative destruction.” 3 How can these contrasting perspectives be reconciled? 4 The theory of punctuated equilibrium, developed in the context of evo- lutionary biology, provides a powerful framework to integrate ideas of gradual change in underlying science with apparent discontinuities in the commercial application of technologies. 5 Gould and Eldridge confronted a fossil record that seemed inconsistent with the gradualist interpretation of Darwin’s ideas. Con- trary to the expectation of an incremental process of descent with modification, they identified periods in which there seemed to be bursts of evolutionary activ- ity. Their resolution of empirical evidence and Darwin’s theory was to note the importance of speciation events—the separation of one evolving population from its antecedent population, which in turn allows populations to follow different evolutionary paths. There are two critical features of speciation. One is that it is genetically conservative—that is, speciation is not triggered by a sudden transformation of the population. Second, the speciation event allows the two populations to grow quite distinct as a result of their now different selection environments. We thank the editors, three anonymous reviewers, and Robert Gunther for their comments on a prior draft.
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What can this framework tell us about the evolution of new technolo- gies? How can it help resolve the discordant images of both gradual and radical technical change? In particular, how can it help us identify those critical transi- tion points when emerging technologies realize commercial importance? The analogue of speciation in technological development is the applica- tion of existing technologies to a new domain of application. Technological dis- continuities are generally not the product of singular events in the development of the technology itself. As in the biological context, the critical factor is often a speciation event, transplanting the existing technological know-how to a new application domain where it evolves in new directions. The technological change associated with the shift in domain can be quite minor; indeed, in some instances, there is no change in technology at all.
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