What are discontinuous technology inventions?

Discontinuous technology inventions, also called radical innovations or disruptive innovations, are those that don’t only add an incremental value to an existing invention but which actually create a new invention that meets needs that were not previously supplied to consumers, generating new value and a new market.

A new market, because, by definition, if the product (or invention of technology) is new, the market that sells that product can also only be new.

To illustrate what a discontinuous technology invention is, we can quickly give the example of digital cameras.

Before them, the continuous or incremental inventions in existing cameras resembled more powerful zooms, smarter flashes that didn’t make your eyes red, longer duration batteries, and film type variations.

That is: only improvements in the invention that already existed, or an incremental continuation of the product.

When the digital camera was invented, there was no need for movies, images could be stored virtually, without taking up space, the number of photos you took no longer depended on how many rolls of film you had purchased (practically extinguishing this market) and you could view photos immediately and even discard the bad ones.

Therefore, all these details are inventions of the discontinuous technology that generated new behaviors (and, therefore, new values in the product), since it was not an increment to the existing invention, but of a new technological invention.

See below the characteristics of discontinuous technological inventions.

See also: What is disruptive innovation? The great decision that changes an era!

What characterizes discontinuous technology inventions?

Risk is one of the most present concepts when defining what is a discontinuous technology invention is.
And that happens for a simple reason: creating a more efficient (and expensive) zoom for the existing camera, involves fewer risks and much less capital than creating something totally new, which in some cases the market may still reject.

In fact, consumers of cameras, as well as those of cars, cake mixers, lawnmowers, televisions, or any other technological invention you can imagine, are already waiting for new models every year.
In the case of cars, they even receive a date at the end of the name. This way the buyer knows exactly which incremental innovations that specific model incorporates.

But the biggest risk is not the only element to stand out in discontinuous technology. Let’s look at all of them in more detail.

1- High investment in Research and Development

Continuing to use our example of digital cameras:

The level of investment in this type of project is clearly more expensive than just reworking a flash or, as in some cases, adding new colors to an existing product line.

2- Low-cost solutions for users

Even with high development costs, discontinuous technology inventions need to be inexpensive. If they’re not, there’s a risk that consumers won’t adopt them.

Even with digital cameras at a price that was a bit expensive in the beginning, it’s necessary to remember that the consumer no longer needed to buy film, much less pay for the development of the photos.

3- New customers for the invention

In solving a need that was not previously met, discontinuous technology inventions attract new users.

Take a hypothetical example:

Consider a plant life scientist who once traveled through the forests cataloging new species. His preferred method of recording plants was by drawing them with a notebook and pencil, rather than carrying a camera and a large amount of film rolls. And even then, after drawing almost 600 pictures, he still couldn’t see value in a conventional camera.

With the almost unlimited possibility of taking photos and even discarding the inappropriate ones, this new compact digital camera consumer became part of this new market.

4 – Discontinuous technology inventions create value

As detailed above, there’s the creation of new value, something that solves a major consumer need.

5- A new market

Again: if there’s a new product and new consumers, by definition the product created a new market.

6- Creating something new

Finally, the most significant point of difference of discontinuous technology inventions is that they create something new. They don’t just improve on what already existed.

Learn more: Creative thinking techniques: Stimulate the mind to be productive

As you saw, one of the hallmarks of discontinuous technology inventions is to offer a low-cost solution to users.


1 Comment. Leave new

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    David W. Locke
    July 19, 2020 9:16 pm

    Discontinuous innovations had a property that Foster called disruptive. Christensen took Foster’s finding and turned it inside out. Later Christensen said that his disruptions did not involve s-curves, or aka inventions. Discontinuous innovation is not disruptive in the Christensen context.

    Low-cost solutions only happen in Christensen’s disruptive context. It amounts to a down market move. Price selects a population which in turn selects the epistemic culture involved or the jobs to be done. Discontinuous innovations do something else. The product might not be useable by the underserved.

    New has nothing to do with discontinuous innovation. The only way to get discontinuous innovation into a market is to do a job to be done that is already being done in a manner that breaks some constraints of the current theory. Discontinuous innovations are built on a new theory, aka a new ontology. It is not about creativity. If your employees can think it up, it wouldn’t be a new theory.

    Discontinuous innovation should not involve high R&D costs. You can find new theory in the journals if you know what to look for and have not constrained your search to “technology.” The development costs will be paid by the B2B early adopter. You don’t actually sell the technology to the early adopter. You implement their product visualization and use it to deliver their business value proposition. The buyer is a client, not a customer. Customers come later.


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