The Oldest Disruptive Innovation
Whilst the term “Disruptive Innovation” is used in way too many new product press releases of late, I am going to stick to the definition coined and popularised by the late Clayton M. Christensen.
According to Mr Christensen, a “disruptive” innovation has to either:
- Have its genesis in the low end of a market (i.e. smaller, lower margin customers) and eventually evolve to address higher value markets, or;
- Create a completely new market.
In his best-selling book “The Innovator’s Dilemma”, Mr Christensen points out that frequently these innovations are, at least in the beginning, less efficient at meeting market demands than the incumbent solution or technology. Younger siblings of over achieving first borns may relate.
It is only with time and constant refinement that the disruptive innovation reaches a stage in which it can compete with the incumbent solution and begin to steal its “market share” and eventually replacing it as the industry standard.
Whilst I readily admit that the concept of disruptive innovation may not be the gospel of all market altering innovations, I think the application of its principles to the “sustenance provision” market (i.e. calories for humans) provides some interesting insights.
Long before the corner supermarket or Door Dash, the very first solution for early humans to get the calories required for survival was likely gathering wild fruits and berries as well as scavenging carcasses left behind by more effective predators. We eventually became skilled hunters ourselves and settled into the practice of hunting and gathering for many millenniums.
The popular anthropological theory is that agriculture (I use the term agriculture loosely to describe farming practices which involves the domestication and cultivation of both flora and fauna) began as a fringe activity in certain parts of the world, where the supply of wild game and fruits may have become scarce due to environmental factors or over hunting/gathering (Yes, we have been messing with the environment even way before the industrial revolution). Nevertheless, evidence suggests that hunting and gathering continued to be the dominant practice even after the first agricultural practices began.
In the very early days of agriculture, it was a far less efficient use of time than undertaking “hunting and gathering” activities. In most parts of the world, the effort required to gain the same calories via hunting and gathering was far less than what it would likely have taken to “grow” them.
Much like it would have been impossible for mini-computer disk drive manufacturers to predict the benefits of the personal computer revolution (one could argue even the personal computer pioneers such as Apple could not have predicted the eventual scale and impact of the sector on our society), our early ancestors could not have known the benefits of agriculture will have on society over the next few thousand years.
There was no evidence to suggest that pursuing agriculture would eventually give rise to settled societies, in turn leading to economic specialisation and civilisations as we know it. Baring ancient clairvoyance abilities, the early caveman MBA doing a cost benefit analysis on farming would have rightfully concluded that it was better to continue pursuing the nearby deer, rather than plough the land to plant seeds.
However, in certain parts of the world (such as the Fertile Crescent — a crescent-shaped area near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that spans modern day Iraq and Syria), where the conditions were ripe (pun intended), the pursuit of more intensive farming began to make sense at least as a supplement to hunting and gathering activities approximately 12,000 years ago. Though I have no anthropological evidence or theory to make this claim, perhaps farming was undertaken by the feebler hunter gatherers (i.e. low-end market), who could not keep up with their more skilled counter parts.
As we all now know, efficiency of agricultural practices grew and eventually began to produce surplus food allowing large groups of humans to stay in one location and for non-farmers to specialise in other skills (pottery, carpentry, fighting etc.). The advent of agriculture proved to be the cornerstone of settled societies that eventually out competed roving hunter gatherer bands and became the dominant form of human groups. Humans in parts of the world where either the conditions for agriculture to flourish was not present or where hunter gathering practices continued to provide a sustainable existence were thus left behind.
So much like many of the “disruptive innovations” examples highlighted by Mr Christensen in his book (smaller disk drives, hydraulic excavators etc.) agriculture too was the poorer cousin to the dominant technology at the time. However, with time, its efficiency outpaced hunting and gathering and replaced it as the dominant technology for sustenance provision.
As such, it leads me to conclude that agriculture may have been the very first disruptive innovation. Whilst agriculture did not create the market for sustenance provision, it most certainly started at the low-end of the market and grew to be the dominant market leader.
Assuming that this hypothesis holds some water (and it is not ripped to shreds by an innovation or anthropology expert that actually knows what she or he is talking about), the agriculture sector has had one of the longest runs for a disruptive innovation without it in turn being disrupted. Which begs the question “Could its turn be sup-planted (pun intended again) be close at hand?”.
Whilst the agricultural technology sector is growing at an unprecedented pace, looking at it through the lens provided to us by Mr Christensen, it is merely a sustaining innovation as part of the broader disruptive innovation of agriculture. It is merely improving an already more efficient system.
As agricultural practices did millenniums ago, the next disruptive innovation in the sustenance provision market must fundamentally change the source of our calories. As such, I would argue that the real disruption to the agriculture sector would be lab grown foods.
For what we want is not a steak. We want a source of digestible protein that looks, smells, feels and tastes like steak. The same could be said for milk, grains, vegetables and fruits. Should scientific advances make it possible for such produce to be manufactured within a lab/factory at a far more efficient rate, could the market for farm produce survive? Now imagine if lab made produce was tastier, more nutritious and cheaper than their farm sourced counterparts.
This is obviously not a new thought. The concept of lab-grown produce, particularly meat, is no longer completely novel and its potential benefits are well understood. Even the fast food giants are flirting with lab grown meats in their offerings and the “smart money” is already flowing to various start-ups in the sector. So, this article does not aim to reiterate what far more articulate writers have already. What I am merely suggesting is that, viewed through Mr Christensen’s disruptive innovation lens, the rise and domination of lab-grown produce is inevitable.
Farmers have been the backbone of society and dare I say civilisation for the last 12,000 years or so. I am by no means suggesting that their role in our world today is about to become obsolete. I am merely suggesting that perhaps sometime in future, they will be wearing lab coats.