What is a Disruptive Technology?

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Exploring Disruptive Technology

This article is a high-level overview of what’s meant by the term disruptive technology, and how can we analyse them.

Disruptive technologies are not new to human history. A classic example is the invention of agriculture approximately 12,000 years ago. This transformed the way humans lived and gave birth to the more complex societies which we live in today.

This has some key features of a disruptive technology: new skills were needed, resources had to be committed and there was no going back to the old ways for most people.

Today, our complex societies are experiencing potentially life changing or life enhancing technologies on a number of fronts. In the ways we communicate, make things, grow stuff, get around and manage our health.

Disruptive Vs Innovative

The word disruptive has a bit of a negative connation to it. And some of these technologies do end up replacing their predecessors. So there can be a destructive aspect to them.

Another way of looking at them is as innovators. They bring new and or more efficient ways of doing things. An example of this is how insurance companies can use smart devices fitted to people’s cars to assess how safely they drive. This means that when assessing their insurance premium, an insurance company no longer has to rely on only someone’s demographic data and claims history.

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Categories Of Disruptive Technologies 1

To get a better understanding of these technologies and their potential impact, we can break them down into the following classes.

1. Enablers
These allow other technologies or processes to be possible. For instance, advances in gene understanding allows this technology to be applied in diagnosing people’s pre-disposition to specific illnesses.

2. Catalysts
These alter the way other technology can be accessed or implemented. An example here is Cloud server technology, which allows both people and other technologies to interact in faster and more efficient ways.

3. Morphers
This is when two or more technologies come together to create new applications, and potentially, new markets. A good example of this are cellular phones. These combine microprocessors developed for computers, wireless technology, battery technology and materials technology.

4. Enhancers
This form of technology takes the game to a new level. The use of stealth technology on aircraft or the use of Nano technology to coat windows are two examples here.

5. Superseders
This form of technology make previous forms obsolete. The rise of digital photography over film photography is a good example of this. As is the way internet driven entertainment has changed the way people consume movies.

6. Breakthroughs
These are fundamental changes in our understanding of nature or of what’s possible. These are the leading edge technology changes that can transform an industry or create a whole new one. Examples here include quantum computing and stem cell research.

Assessing Technologies

Another way of assessing the potential impact of new technologies, is to look at their application. For instance, some technologies are only useful when someone takes it an adds it to something else. So, the initial discovery may not create much of a fuss.

For other technologies, their true impact is measured over a series of innovations. An example of this is the micro-processor technology used in computers. The power-cost ratio of these devices has been transformed over recent decades. For instance, a smart phone costing a few hundred dollars has the equivalent processing power of a multi-million dollar computer of forty years ago.


As we can see, there are several different ways of assessing the potential impact of new technologies. How these will affect people’s lives in terms of life-quality, employment, the distribution of wealth and so on, are topics for much debate.


1Committee on Forecasting Future Disruptive Technologies, Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences, National Research Council, The National Academic Press, Washington, DC, 2010.

© David R. Durham,
Digital Marketer.

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