The effects of decentralisation in the innovation landscape

The decentralisation of resource flows has significant effects of the roles of the innovation protagonists. Even though the innovation landscape itself essentially remains unchanged, the interactions across that landscape evolve toward unprecedented dynamics.


The innovation landscape is shaped along two axes: problems that demand for a solution, and ideas for potential solutions. Within that landscape, we then find four different quadrant: disruptive, research, business as usual, and wicked. The decentralisation of resource flows has different effects on each of them. So what are the changes and challenges, and what remains unchanged?

Let’s start with the disruptive quadrant.

  • Applying known ideas and concepts to solve new problems is the traditional domain of the entrepreneurs. Usually positioned outside the established structures and organisations, they are less tied to conventional approaches. They are well equipped to anticipate future challenges early, and they are open to take risk, e.g., to test and try ideas quickly rather than thinking them through in every detail.
  • The decentralisation of resource flows will reinforce those characteristics and strengthen the role of the entrepreneurs. The combination of makers movement, crowd funding and crowd sourcing create the condition for many more entrepreneurs to follow their vocation.
  • As a result, the disruptive quadrant will be more densely populated, buzzing with activity at higher intensity than ever before. Such activity will yield faster evolution of disruptive innovation and a wider coverage of potential problems. Collectively, the entrepreneurs will reach out further, ultimately expanding the landscape to the right, anticipating further innovation demand. At the same time, they’ll stretch over to the wicked quadrant. But most importantly, they will increase the pressure on the established actors in the business as usual quadrant. But before we go there, …

… take a look at the research quadrant.

  • Finding novel ideas to solve known but challenging problems is the focus of dedicated research establishments like laboratories or universities.  These organisations are the result of long-term investments,  which took time and absorbed significant capital resources to establish. They are well positioned to pursue basic as well as applied research for the benefit of their customers, either society at large or corporations funding their research programmes.
  • The decentralisation of resource flows creates a new actor in the research quadrant: citizen science. The internet has enabled an agility and reach of information flow that offers truly innovative ways for doing science. Though citizen science will not simply replace traditional science, it can augment the traditional methodology.
  • As a result, the research quadrant is likely to become more dynamic. As citizen scientists are less closely tied to established scientific paradigms, they will act in unconventional ways, challenging established rules, and seeking ideas in previously uncharted territory. Hence they will extend the landscape further to the left.  At the same time, citizen science has potential to successfully reach over to the wicked quadrant.  While the delivery of sustaining innovation to the business as usual quadrant will continue rather unchanged, the key question is: How will the relation between the two actors in the research quadrant be like: competition or collaboration? While there are arguments for both reactions, I see  ample opportunity for beneficial collaboration. Let’s combine the best of both worlds, the patience, rigour, and well-defined exploitation paths of the established scientists with the agility, energy and unconstrained imagination of the newcomer citizen scientists.

Next, business as usual.

  • Here we find the domain of corporations, focused on efficiency innovations that recombine known ideas and known problems to find faster, cheaper, easier solutions. They essentially rely on the research quadrant to supply new ideas for potential solution. On the other side of the landscape, the disruptive quadrant poses a potential challenge to established business models.
  • The decentralisation of resource flows has little direct effect on business as usual. However, the combined effects on the disruptive quadrant and the research quadrant imply significant indirect effects such as a loss of the traditional grip on resources.
  • The increasing dynamics and growing numbers of actors all around the business as usual quadrant will rebalance the innovation landscape. Previously, business as usual was the unrivalled centre of gravity. In the future, this dominance will cease to exist, as citizen science, makers movement, crowd sourcing, crowd funding and other similar trends become more and more productive in the innovation landscape.

Finally, the wicked quadrant.

  • This is the area of the as-yet-unknown, of emerging ideas as well as emerging problems. It is characterised by significant uncertainty, and it usually outside reach for established rules and tools (even though they might be applied in part through extrapolation).
  • With the decentralisation of resource flows, the wicked quadrant becomes more accessible. It will be easier than ever before to attract the attention of unusual combinations of experts (citizen science), to draw funding for really excentric ideas (crowd-funding), and to test them in almost in real-time (makers movement).
  • The same forces that will put business as usual under pressure are at work to build bridges to the unknown. It is not necessary anymore to convince “the establishment” to provide the resources for innovative solutions in the wicked quadrant. And with that, more of those truly wicked challenges can be addressed.

In summary, with the decentralisation of resource flows the fringes of the innovation landscape become more accessible, while at the same time innovation in the business as usual quadrant will play a lesser and lesser role. But this new innovation activity in the fringes of the landscape poses challenges for our institutions as well, namely for our forward looking innovation policy.

Previously, innovation policy was required to broadly encourage investigation and exploration in the fringes, especially in the wicked quadrant.  Today, the emerging trend of decentralisation actually enables and facilitates such exploration, so that the general encouragement is not needed anymore. Rather, the increasing agility towards the fringes requires innovation policies that carefully consider the appropriate balance between freedom and control, avoiding undesirable constraints as much as unhealthy volatility. Take net neutrality as a case in point: from the micro-economic perspective of the network providers it is a promising business model to offer extra speed at an extra price; but from the perspective of a society that benefits mightily from the unconstrained flow of information, that price might be too high. A topic for an adult discussion …


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