The World of Work Project

Disruption in Action

Disruption occurs when primary innovation results in a material change in existing markets, ways of working or even society. Primary innovation can affect technology, but can also affect other factors of human life such as religion or legislation.

Summary by The World of Work Project

Disruption in Action

Real disruption, which usually occurs as a result of primary innovation, is a powerful force that may ultimately lead to significant benefits to society, but which also typically causes some really challenges for people along the way, particularly those involved in industries that are being disrupted.

Examples of disruption are prevalent throughout history, and three examples of technological disruption include the building of bridges in London, James Hargreaves’ invention of the spinning jenny and the rise of Uber.

While we’re not going to focus on them here, it’s worth keeping in mind that political, philosophical and religious innovations have led to far wider disruption than nearly any technological innovations. For example, Martin Luther hugely disrupted Christianity and, through it, society as a whole.

To look at some of the impacts of disruption, we’re going to look at the bridges of London. They’re a fascinating example of how a technology that we now take so for granted was once disruptive. Much more information is available on line in relation to these and other examples though, if you want to learn more.

London’s Bridges

Westminster Bridge, as it is today.

Bridges are so much part of our daily lives now that I suspect few of us ever reflect on them as a technology, or reflect on the huge time savings that they bring to our societies. This wasn’t always the case though.

London’s first bridge was actually built by the Romans in about 50AD, at the same location where London Bridge now stands. Though this bridge was rebuilt as a timber construction several times by the Saxons and eventually built into a stone bridge in 1209, it remained London’s only bridge over the Thames until 1750 when the Westminster bridge was built. This was quickly followed by a bridge at Kew in 1759, Battersea in 1771, Richmond in 1777 and Hammersmith in 1827.

While we might not think of this as disruptive change, it had a huge impact on the city, and a particularly large impact on the wherry men who used to ply their boats up and down the Thames moving passengers both across the river and up and down its shores.

A wherry, or so we think.

Rightly, the wherry men saw London’s new bridges as a threat to their livelihoods and to their way of life, and they protested against their construction.

Ultimately their efforts to halt the construction of the bridges failed and in the longer term society hugely benefited from their construction. Along the way though, things were very difficult for those who saw their worlds disrupted by the bridges. And this is a common theme in relation to disruption.

The World of Work Project View

Disruption is a popular word at the moment and many start-ups and tech companies purport to be seeking to disrupt their markets.

While disruption, or at least the disruptions that stick, usually brings better long term outcomes for humanity, the process of disruption itself is not always easy. We would argue that those doing the disruption should have a duty of care and consideration to those being disrupted.

We would also note that we’re not certain that all disruption through history has been good thing in the long run. Questions surely can be raised in relation to technological innovation in arms and some social and religious innovations that have affected swaths of humanity. We also withhold judgement over things like social media at the moment.

Sources and further reading

Where possible we always recommend that people read up on the original sources of information and ideas.

In this instance, most of our content has come from our own reading and reflection, with no specific sources to note.


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