Charles Chamberlain

the evolution of technical innovations


I've recently come across wardley mapping, a technique for visualizing and modeling business strategy. There's one piece of it that has stuck in my mind: a theory of the evolution of technological innovations. The essence is that technologies transition between 4 stages as they become more mature and better understood by the world.

It all starts with inventions: totally unique ideas and prototypes by a single person. Think, Da Vinci scribbling about ornithopters. Inventions aren't useful all on their own, but they are fundamental to technical progress.

da vinci drawing of an ornithopter

If someone decides to go and implement an invention to solve a particular problem, it becomes a bespoke solution. This is more like the first couple airplanes or work done by software consultancy firms. Bespoke solutions can be very useful for the small number of people for whom they are made, but seldom scale beyond that context.

first passenger airplane

the world's first commercial passenger plane

When a technology gets understood and refined to the point where it can be produced en masse for many clients, it becomes a product. These become widespread in our daily lives: the Model T, Boing 777's, SaaS companies, etc. Products aren't cheap in the grand scheme of things, but they tend to be much cheaper than doing your own research and building your own solution.

a float plane landing on water

And finally, once a technology gets so well understood that many suppliers can produce roughly equivalent versions of it quite easily, the price falls and it become a commodity. Commodities are the "Amazon Basics" of the world: cheap silverware, computer mice, 2x4's, barrels of oil, etc. Innovations can still happen within commodities but they tend to be centered around efficient production rather than design.

a big boat with lots of shipping containers

So that's the framework! Inventions become bespoke solutions, bespoke solutions become products, products become commodities. Some thoughts I have about this:

That's all for now, hope this can be a useful framework for you. Thanks for stopping by!