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Ideas diffusion – from innovation to adoption

Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

ACCORDING TO Dr Robert Gillman – a one-time astrophysicist with NASA turned community worker and, later, publisher of In Context magazine – there is a process by which new ideas move from the creative fringe of society into the conservative core.

For those working for social change or to produce a new product, Dr Gillman’s process provides a context and a timeline for their work.

Small groups have influence

Dr Gillman’s message is that successful small groups working to popularise a new idea or innovation can have a long term impact if they understand how ideas move into society and if they strategise to get their ideas to the take-off point.

The process – ideas diffusion – by which this happens was hinted at by well-known anthropologist, Margaret Mead, who is credited with the statement: “Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has”.

The ideas diffusion model

Dr Gillman and others developed what has become known as the Ideas Diffusion model.

Like a leaf caught in a whirlpool, useful innovations are diffused into society by flowing from the edge to the mainstream core.

This process , says Dr Gillman, might take as long as 15 to 20 years, however it may well be shorter. More recently, in the information technology area, we’ve seen a much shorter lead time.

Virtually every major shift in cultural history can trace its origins to the work of a small group, often gathered around an innovative thinker or body of thought

The observation that great ideas start on an innovative fringe has some resonance with an idea postulated by scientists studying in the field of complexity. They allude to life existing in a zone they call ‘the edge of chaos’. Here, the possibilities are greater, the options open. The edge occupies a narrow, dynamic zone between the unorganised chaos beyond and the overorganised, regulated area of limited possibility on its other side. The edge, then, is the creative zone, the place where innovation can occur and change start.

The ideas diffusion model describes the way by which innovative ideas move from the social fringe, where they are created, into the conservative core of society where they are adopted, put into broad use or commercialised.

The model was outlined in Sydney during Dr Gillman’s 1996 visit. It has been developed further in the Context Institute’s book, Making It Happen.

“Virtually every major shift in cultural history can trace its origins to the work of a small group, often gathered around an innovative thinker or body of thought”, write the authors.

If this is true, then the concern, which sometimes borders on anxiety, which so many social change agents have about influencing the mass of people is misplaced.

The road to adoption

The road to adoption of an idea follows a path through society:

  1. it starts on the innovative fringe of society with the innovator – an inventor or thinker, a holder of unorthodox ideas who may be sometimes ridiculed or at best disregarded by those inhabiting the conservative core of mainstream society
  2. attracted to the ideas of the innovator, perhaps by their book or by media attention, the early adopters take up the innovation; these are solutions oriented people who further develop the innovator’s work, promoting it, perhaps offer courses and workshops in it and set up working examples
  3. after a period of development and popularisation by the early adoptors, the new idea is taken up by early mass adopters and by later mass adopters, a larger group likely to be made up of people working within the structures of mainstream society
  4. from the later adapters the idea moves further into the social mainstream where it become part of the intellectual or technological toolkit of society; this is the realm of mass adoption
  5. mass adoption is not a homogenous state, however, there are those who resist the intrusion of new ideas and new practices; these curmudgeons may feel threatened by the innovation or the new idea; their financial, political or social power may be at stake; alternatively, they may simply be people resistant to new ideas because they have been caught out by them in the past, perhaps having been marginalised by social, technological or economic change.

Dr Gillman suggests that change agents not waste their energy arguing and confronting opposition because it takes time, energy and resources that could be better used. He suggests bypassing the opposition of curmudgeons in the way water in a goes around a large rock in a stream, wearing it away over time and reducing its influence.

The curve of adoption

Dr Gillman describes a curve of ideas diffusion that tracks the idea from innovation to acceptance. The critical point of the ideas diffusion curve is the take-off point.

The take-off point is the stage at which the idea starts to move into the mainstream. This occurs, says Dr Gillman, when the idea is adopted by between 5 and 15 percent of the population. After that it is probably unstoppable, building up a momentum through word of mouth, media coverage, adoption or commercialisation.

Using the demonstration effect

Dr Gillman says that demonstrating a new idea is crucial to its adoption.

People need to see it in action before they will adopt it. They need to satisfy themselves that the innovation is not threatening or freaky and that it could be integrated into their lives.

This demonstration effect works through the process of learning by seeing and, in some cases, learning by doing.

Educationalists say that learning by doing is more durable than other ways of leaning. That is why practical work, and site visits to a lesser extent, is so important in permaculture and sustainability education. Establishing publicly accessible demonstration sites for permaculture design is one way of demonstrating its effectiveness.

It’s the way people move from being sceptics to becoming early adopters.

The lessons

The lessons stemming from Dr Gillman’s work for sustainability educators, community organisations and social entrepreneurs includes:

  • having innovative ideas is not enough by itself; the capacity to implement those ideas is critical to their development and eventual adoption
  • the idea has to have some evident social utility to be adopted into the mainstream
  • there is a process operating behind the development and introduction of significant new ideas
  • it is possible to move in small steps; mass change does not have to come all at once
  • the period from innovation to take-off is critical to the new idea, as this pre-take-off time is when the idea needs greatest nourishment and development; it is akin to the proof of technology and prototyping phases of technology development
  • to nurture an idea to the take-off point, a reasonable level of organisation, continuity, planning, persistence and capacity is needed
  • the influence of the innovator is likely to lessen as the idea enters the early adaptor stage; new voices will emerge from the early adopters and some of the innovator’s ideas may require adaptation.

Making it successful

The Context Institute has identified five characteristics of a successful innovation:

  • relative advantage – is the idea better than what exists and will people perceive it as better?
  • compatibility – how well the innovation meshes with personal experience and needs
  • complexity – the usability of the innovation; how comprehensible it is and how easy it is to use (easier to use = swifter adoption)
  • trialability – a trialable innovation allows people to try it out before committing themselves
  • observability – are the results of its use easily seen?

For sustainability educators and community organisations:

  • the five characteristics provide the foci for educational activity and the further development of the idea; these can be applied to a technology or to an idea
  • the possession of communication skills is crucial to the popularisation and adoption of a new idea
  • publicly demonstrating the utility and benefits of the innovation should form a major part of the communications process; the demonstration effect works when people witness the idea in operation and realise that it is not threatening and is of benefit to them
  • demonstrating the idea should be done so that it is publicly accessible and should be supported by messages and literature explaining the idea and its benefit
  • the publishing of information about the innovation and the results of trials provides information of value to early mass adopters.

The process of testing, developing and demonstrating the innovation becomes the key to its adoption.

Development is assisted when accompanied by the production of an educational package around the innovation. This package focuses on the usefulness, relevance and desirability of the innovation rather than on refuting the arguments of those opposed to it.

To popularise an innovation, the Context Institute says that personal adoption, promotion and influence are all necessary. The process can start with any of these:

  • personal adoption – the use of the innovation or idea in your life
  • promotion – communicating the innovation to others by whatever means are relevant
  • influence – putting it into action in areas used by other people and where it is visible; this helps institutionalise the innovation.

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