I’ve written a number of times why innovations, and indeed innovators, are resisted within organizations, but such resistance also occurs at a societal level. Think historically to the loom and the printing press, or to driverless technology today.
One of the most exhaustive studies of just why this is was undertaken by Harvard’s Calestous Juma. His 16 year exploration of resisted innovation was chronicled in his latest book, Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technology.
Fear is the overriding emotion
Far and away the biggest cause of a new innovation being resisted is fear associated with a loss of employment, but similar fears around losses of power and identity are also important. Pertinently, Juma highlights the growing disconnect between the pace of change, and the rate at which society can adapt to the changes.
The book draws from around 600 years of opposition to innovation ranging from the printing press to GM crops. Juma discusses the incredible lengths opponents will go to prevent a technology from taking hold. These include slander, smear campaigns and demonization, with the end goal usually being to legislate away the threat in some way.
Whilst it’s tempting to think that the current age offers new and unique circumstances, Juma suggests that there are rather more parallels with historic events than we realize.
Learning from history
For instance, genetically modified crops have been daubed with many of the same kind of monikers as coffee was when it was introduced to Italy in the 17th century. What’s more, many of these attempts were made against products we now find fundamental to our way of life.
For instance, ’embalmed foods’ was the helpful nickname for refrigerated products when they first hit the market, whilst Swedes used to call the telephone the ‘Devil’s Instrument’.
“Common to all these cases is fear and opponents excluded from the benefits of new technology,” Juma says.
The study highlighted four core types of objection to a new technology:
- Intuition, which often manifests itself in fear or disgust. New types of food often fall into this category.
- Vested interests, whereby those who stand to lose out from a new technology protests heartily to prevent its adoption. The Luddites are the obvious example here.
- Intellectual challenges, which may categorize some of the objections to modern technologies such as automation or even fracking
- Business model objections tend to center around attempts by a new technology to alter the psychology of health and nutrition choices
As the pace of change seems to be increasing, the question then becomes how can we assure smoother transitions of new technologies into society?
Juma argues that key is more adaptive social institutions to enable more suitable responses to be made to new technologies, but also significantly more public awareness and engagement efforts made by all concerned.
This might manifest itself in training in the new technologies or a more equitable management of IP. If inclusive strategies are not adopted then we’re destined to repeat the mistakes of our forefathers and ensure resistance emerges alongside most disruptive new technologies.
“People are more likely to accept the risks of new technologies if they have been part of the process of deciding on their use,” Juma concludes.