Revolutionary and evolutionary innovation

Revolutionary and evolutionary innovation

If you were Dutch and were asked to give an example of a sport innovation, the chances are you would mention the clap skate. Perhaps you also know that the skater can skate faster with this type of skate because the clap mechanism allows the skater to stretch the ankle when pushing off, while the blade remains on the ice. What is less well known is that getting this innovation into widespread use in practice didn’t happen without a struggle. The principle of the innovation and the technical solutions were already well known and available, but nobody dared to take the first step to actually switching to the innovation. This was largely because the skaters anticipated having to adjust their skating technique which might risk their falling behind their competitors. As a result of the successful pioneering work of Tonny de Jong and team mates, huge numbers of skaters switched to the new skate.

The story of the clap skate perfectly illustrates what innovation means: achieving an advantage and being ahead of the field, but preferably not too far ahead, in the light of the challenges involved in introducing the innovation in practice. The degree of alignment with the dominant current practice plays an important role in dissemination within the market. The transition from wooden tennis rackets and hockey sticks to artificial versions and the introduction of improved shock absorption in running shoes went more smoothly; in these cases the new products didn’t require any fundamental adaptation by the user such as (later proved to be untrue) expected with the clap skate. We also saw the same thing happen with the introduction of the carve-ski, which is narrower in the middle compared with its predecessors and therefore makes it easier to turn.

In general we can suppose that successful innovations almost always consist of small modifications or the transfer of technology from another domain (‘evolutionary innovations’). Innovation is by definition something which delivers an advantage; this may involve new sports, accessibility, rules, training methods, movement techniques, nutrition, materials and information systems. Innovations of the same kind as the clap skate (‘revolutionary innovations’) are the exception rather than the rule. Often thought to technical innovations (‘tech’), but innovations can equally well be ‘no-tech’; think of the revolutionary Fosbury Flop in the high jump, whereby the jumper clears the bar headfirst and backwards, and a sport like beach volleyball, evolved from a leisure activity at the shore.