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Disruptive Change Is Not Around the Corner—It’s Already Here


Disruptive innovations are ‘wild cards.’ Their influence is unpredictable. They change how we think, behave, do business, learn and go about our day-to-day. Harvard Business School professor and disruption guru Clayton Christensen says a disruption displaces an existing market, industry, or technology and produces something new, more efficient and worthwhile.

What’s confusing is that we already know most technologies that could prove disruptive in future such as wearables, augmented reality, or the driverless car—yet many organizations will still be surprised when they affect their way of doing things. This view rests on a misunderstanding of the nature of technological change. Technology may advance incrementally on the margins for long periods of time without substantially affecting established actors until a number of factors are coming together.

One interesting way to test whether we are facing disruptive change is to use Doblin’s 10 types of innovation. Many times innovation activity is focused on one category: product innovation. Simply put, this is about incrementally improving the battery life of your new smartphone over the previous model. Disruptive innovation such as seeing the phone in fundamental new ways—as a TV, a health and fitness tracker, a radio, a computer, etc.—will be more likely if we see high innovation activity across a number of the ten innovation types.

For example, solar energy has already reached a global scale but has yet to realize its true disruptive potential. Sunlight is free of charge. The price of solar panels continues to sharply decline. Decentralized grids are becoming more common. Yet there are still pieces missing. How can we store energy when there isn’t any sunlight? How can it be transported across great distances? What are the business models for widespread adoption? Imagine the level of disruption when these questions of delivery, profit model, and process are answered. The surfaces of all buildings, vehicles, and clothing could be fabricated with solar materials capable of powering lights, engines, appliances, or even desalination plants—making cheap energy available everywhere at any time.

You may think this is interesting, but what does this mean for international civil society organizations (ICSOs)?


In his book, The Hedgehog and the Beetle, Burkhard Gnaerig speaks to the disruptive change that international civil society organizations are facing, change that is new in how rapidly it is happening, its widespread nature affecting many components of the organizational model of ICSOs and its scale. Coming back to the Doblin Group’s 10 types of innovation I see multiple types of innovation eroding the current model of ICSOs—an indication that more and more disruptive change is ahead.

At the highest level, how we think about aid has fundamentally shifted. We understand poverty in more multidimensional ways beyond ‘lack of money.’ Also, poverty is at the same time more concentrated and more wide-spread, in fragile states and (post)conflict countries as well as middle-income countries.

Other actors have entered the aid industry or taken on new roles. More governments than ever have the financial ability to improve the situation of poor living in their country but don’t have the will or know-how to do so. The private sector and hybrid forms of social entrepreneurship have moved beyond charitable models to deliver services that were previously reserved for ICSOs.

Funding and donations follow new rules. They have become much more transparent, immediate and direct, and can bypass intermediaries such as ICSOs completely.

Drones and mobile technology impact how services are being delivered, their cost and personnel structures. To hire talent, the sector now competes with social entrepreneurs and private companies.

All of this is good news—much more disruptive innovation is needed to end poverty, hunger, and disabling diseases as soon as possible. The question is whether ICSOs will play a large and leading role in the transformation. Every organization will need to develop its own answer to this question. Using the method of scenario planning might be a starting point to identify the forces that will affect your possible model in the next 10-20 years.

One thing is clear: doing nothing is not an option.

A version of this post also appeared on Disrupt & Innovate.

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