Most new businesses have old business models

Terms like "disruptive" and "tech business" just distract from the essential similarity between many companies.

Slate's Matt Yglesias decries the over-use of the word "disruptive":

This is a shame, because while all innovation is great, the idea of disruptive innovation as a distinctive kind of innovation has real value. And while disruptive innovation is generally a good thing, nothing inherent to the idea implies it’s the only good thing or the best thing. Entrepreneurs should not be ashamed to admit that their ideas aren’t particularly disruptive.

Disruptive innovation is important because of what it's not: "sustaining innovation". The two terms come from Clayton Christensen's 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma. The latter describes the innovation of building a better mousetrap, so to speak: a company looks at their products, looks at their clients, and tries to improve their products to better fit their clients needs. Christensen uses the example of IBM building mainframes in the 1960s and 1970s, but it's just as easy to turn to Nintendo progressing from the Game Boy to 3DS, or Kodak making ever better point-and-shoot cameras.

In each case, the company focused on winning an ever greater share of the market by being the best at what they do, without noticing that there's another way they could lose out: from companies doing a much worse job. So IBM, focusing all its attention on the mainframe market, failed to account for the rise of personal computers, which were far worse at the sort of jobs that businesses used mainframes for, but cheap enough that individuals could buy them; Nintendo didn't realise that the market for mobile games would be content playing simpler, cheaper games on their smartphones, rather than paying £40 for a fully-fledged port of Ocarina of Time; and Kodak didn't account for the desire of people to take truly awful quality pictures on their cameraphones.

That's disruption: competing, not by making something better than the incumbent, but by making something which, despite being worse, is so much more accessible that it eats market share from the bottom-end up.

(Incidentally, are you seeing the pattern here? Smartphones have been astonishingly disruptive in a nearly every area they've touched. As well as point-and-shoot photography and handheld gaming, they can probably be blamed for the demise of MP3 players, PDAs, most GPS navigation devices, and, if you've ever sat on the back of a bus on the school run, 1980's style boomboxes. In nearly every case – and certainly the last – they're considerably worse than a purpose-build device at doing the same thing, but you can't beat the price, nor the portability.)

In a way, it's a more specific example of the point repeatedly made: there's no such thing as a tech company. Here's Quartz's David Yanofsky on that topic:

Perhaps a tech company employs software engineers to improve product offerings and user experiences. AT&T has employed developers for years, programming the infrastructure of telecommunications to route phone calls around the world. It’s not called a tech company though. Skype is.

Perhaps a tech company uses technology to change the way we behave. Amazon.com’s business of selling countless items at any hour to anyone, then shipping them anywhere, surely fits into this category. Yet, in practice, it is no different than a Sears Roebuck mail-order catalog.

Hiving businesses off into their own little sector because they use the internet might have made sense 20 years ago, but not anymore. Amazon and Waterstones both have retail stores and online sales; Google and the Guardian both have business models focused around selling ads to firms trying to market to people using their websites.

As with "tech business" before it, "disruption" nowadays seems to just mean "doing things better than the old way because computers are involved". Which is important, but obscures the fact that disruption's a useful term which has a meaning of its own. And it also hides the fact that there's a lot more similarity between seemingly disparate fields than there seems to be at first glance.

A trophy on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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