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. There are many examples from history of disruption in action, in this post we look at bridges…

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. It may ultimately lead to significant benefits to society. However, it also typically causes some really challenges for people along the way. It particularly affects those involved in industries that are being disrupted.

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

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. Or similarly, Marx hugely disrupted political thinking and shaped a lot of the history of the 20th century.

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 online in relation to these and other examples though, if you want to learn more.

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London’s Bridges

Westminster bridge in London - introducing bridges was an example of Disruption in Action
Westminster Bridge, as it is today.

Bridges are so ingrained in our lives now that few of us ever reflect on them as a technology. Similarly, few of us 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. It was 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 several other bridges. Kew was built 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. It had particularly large impact on the wherry men who used to ply their boats up and down the Thames. They worked moving passengers both across the river and up and down its shores.

A wherry boat - wherrymen were upset by Disruption in Action
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. They protested against their construction. In some ways, this is no different to taxi drivers today protesting against Uber.

Ultimately, their efforts to halt the construction of the bridges failed. 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.

While this example ultimately brought benefit to society, the same cannot be said of all disruptions.

Learning More

It’s worth thinking about the difference between initial and incremental innovation. It might also be worth reading more about the Innovator’s Dilemma. We also like the concept of the Medici Effect, which considers the benefits of diversity on innovation. We’ve written a little on cultures and leadership for innovation and discussed the hackathon tool, as well as problem solving.

To learn more about how people respond to disruption, you might enjoy our post on the change curve. Or our post on the Bridges model.

You might also enjoy the three special podcasts we did on creativity and innovation. They were with guest Roni Reiter-Palmon, who’s the director of innovation at the University of Nebraska’s Center for Collaboration Science. You can listen to the first episode below:

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.

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Most of our content for this post has come from our own reading and reflection. We don’t have any specific sources for it. Please correct us if you know of people we should cite!

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