Foundational Technologies versus Disruptive Applications

Most of us are more interested in the business and social implications of exponentially advancing technology, rather than in the wonky details of the actual tech. With everyone braying about tech breakthroughs every day, how can you interpret what you hear? I’ve written about one lens to help you understand emerging technology – see my piece on Three Horizons – and here’s another framework I find useful.

I now realize I spent many years confusing Foundational Technologies with Disruptive Applications. Here’s an example: When NetScape created their first browser in 1994, I remember everyone talking breathlessly about TCP/IP, the fundamental protocol for internet communication. I failed to understand that TCP/IP was a Foundational Technology, poised to change the way we all live and work with a myriad of online experiences, whereas the NetScape Mosaic browser was one among many Disruptive Applications of TCP/IP.

Let’s have a look at some key distinctions:

Foundational Technologies…. Disruptive Applications….
Create new foundations for our economic, political and social systems.Usually begin in the commercial world, attacking a traditional business model with a lower-cost solution and overtaking incumbent firms quickly. 
Appear abstract and theoretical; Require background in science or technology to understand.Are communicated with a simple and clear business value proposition.
Take decades to seep into our business infrastructure.Emerge over years, never require decades.
Are adopted steadily and gradually. Disrupt existing industries with targeted, rapidly-growing ventures
Enable novel, complex systems.Enable transformative applications.

Here are a few examples:

We can count on government labs and large corporate R&D facilities to continue pumping out the basic research leading to Foundational Technologies. When it comes to Disruptive Applications, though, my money is on (1) startup entrepreneurs, and (2) big-companies intrapreneurs who are given the latitude to create bold new ventures. For example, global giant Schneider Electric recognized the incredible advance of renewable energy as a broad Foundational Technology. We worked with a small, nimble team from Schneider to build eIQ Mobility, a Disruptive Application for charging fleets of electric vehicles.

The next time you hear a breathless description of an emerging technology, try categorize it as a Foundational Technology, a Disruptive Application, or something in between. And, as always, talk to me. I’d like to know if you find this distinction helps you think about the unruly world of technology.

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