Time is an important concept to investigate when working with innovation and change.
Today we generally believe time is linear, it has an arrow or directionality – due to later states being produced from earlier states.
The idea that time is linear is even more crucial in technology and marketing. We measure diffusion of innovative technologies and products with linear curves, e.g. the “bell-shaped” innovation adoption curve, or the Gartner Hype Cycle.
One of the key ideas in the technology industry, for example, is that innovation is when a new technology replaces an old one. And therefore new products replace the old ones. Hence, the innovation timeline is seen as a linear sequence of shifts, a linear chain of substitutions, one after the other.
However, past cultures looked at time in different ways. For example the Greeks believed time was circular. After all, natural phenomena such as the circular evolution of seasons show that time is not always linear.
All modern management and marketing approaches look at innovation time as a linear arrow. And this is probably because when we look at innovation we tend to consider only the last 30/50 years of human evolution. What strikes me is that in the last 50 years markets had a surprising ability to replace old products with new ones. This was not the case in previous centuries. What happens if we extend our reach backwards in time?
Old human artefacts are stratified
Here in Europe Christian churches are some of the oldest human artifacts still in use.
The Aachen Cathedral, for example, is the oldest cathedral in Northern Europe and was constructed by the emperor Charlemagne, who was buried there after his death in 814.
Construction started in 796 AD, which means the church has been in use for more or less 1,200 years. Until 1500 the cathedral had a central role in the German and European culture, as it was was the church of coronation for Holy Roman Emperors.
The artifact that we see today is the result of several centuries of modifications, re-decorations, re-design and restoration works. Both in the exterior and in the interior. I mapped the most important ones in the picture below.
Each new re-design programme – inspired to a new style – added elements to the building. The new elements were deposited like geological strata either adjacent to each other or in vertical sequence.
The interesting aspect of this evolution is that new design components were introduced with a focus on the overall balance and harmony of the building. In other words, the focus of designers was more on conformability than disruption.
I think we can conclude that when the focus of designers is the system – rather than a single component or feature – innovation adoption results in a series of layers or strata of innovations.
Disruptive innovation time is linear. Conformable innovation time is stratigraphic.