The Shape of Innovation

The s-curve as introduced when describing technology adoption. This curve illustrates the typical trend in technology adoption: slow adoption, followed by rapid adoption, and then a slowing of adoption as a limit is reached. Two trends are differentiating the s-curve describing the evolution of ICT in the 21st century form previous information technologies, and these differences have important implications for educators.

First, s-curves are straightening. This effect arises from a shorter time necessary for the trend illustrated in the s-curve to complete the pattern (see figure 1). For example, whereas radio took decades to reach 50 million users, television took only a few years, and YouTube reached that many users in months (Hannemyr 2003). The straightening of s-curves represents the more rapid spread of ICT throughout populations than was observed in previous technologies. For educators, the planning that was typical in the 20th century could proceed under broad s-curves, as trends could be identified and curriculum and instruction adjusted slowly. For 21st century educators engaged in continuous reinvention, planning proceeds under straight s-curves (see figure 1).

narrow versus wide s-curves

Figure 1. Straightened s-curves indicate rapid evolution

Second, innovation typically occurs when one s-curve replaces another, and typically, the shift from one s-curve to another sometimes requires fundamental revision and reinvention of the endeavor. As illustrated in figure 2, innovation within a field occurs when one practice is adopted, gains wide acceptance (the steep part of the s-curve) and then slows. While the slowing can result from market saturation, in many cases, the slowing is the result of the practice approaching a physical limit or its effectiveness otherwise being limited. Innovation becomes obvious when one technology (either hard technology or soft technology) replaces another and provides the same function.

In many cases, innovation increases and expands the capacity within the domain; this was observed with vacuum tubes were replaced with transistors in digital computers and then again when transistors were replaced with silicon circuits. In that domain, the transitions were smooth and even welcomed by the designers of systems and the users of those systems. In other cases, the transition from one s-curve to another can be disruptive. This is especially true when innovation occurs in social technologies, such as education (Christensen, Johnson, and Horn 2008).

successive s-curves

Figure 2. A Series of S-curves illustrating replacement of innovations


Christensen, Clayton, Michael Horn, and Curtis Johnson. 2008. Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hannemyr, Gisle. 2003. “The Internet as Hyperbole.” Accessed December 20, 2011,