Perspectives on Innovation Diffusion

When we try to explain the rate of diffusion of an innovation, we are basically concerned with the time that it takes for more people in a society to start using it. Obviously, when it comes to our concern with renewable energy, we would ideally like societies to start using a lot more renewable energy technologies a lot more quickly, and that is why literature on innovation diffusion is relevant to the challenge.

But of course, it is not just people interested in renewable energy that can benefit from understanding innovation diffusion. For example, companies that manufacture photographic film may want to know how fast digital cameras will diffuse and displace their products; public health officials trying to introduce mosquito nets will want to know how to encourage more people to use more nets more quickly; extension agents propagating the use of new seeds for enhanced crop yields will want to know how to encourage more farmers to sign on in the shortest possible period of time. Indeed, wherever somebody is in a race against time to either understand or accelerate the diffusion of an innovation, the theories we are about to cover will be of some relevance.

What is immediately striking when you start to dig into such literature is that there are an awful lot of different views. Luckily for the reader, somewhere during the digging process I stumbled across the work of a geographer by the name of Lawrence Brown, who very helpfully categorized diffusion research into four broad perspectives:

1 the communication perspective;

2 the economic history perspective;

3 the development perspective; and

4 the market infrastructure perspective.1

Each of these perspectives has a slightly different take on the same question of what affects the speed with which an innovation diffuses through society.

What we find as we go on to review the perspectives is that each has something relevant to say about the phenomenon of innovation diffusion, but that none really pulls all the pieces of the puzzle together.2 Instead, each perspective comes from a different discipline and takes a fundamentally different approach to the question of diffusion.

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