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Technology for Social Good – What a bicycle can teach us about technology adoption

Since the past year I have been working increasingly on the question how emerging technologies like block chain, internet of things, sensor technology, robotics, and artificial technologies can contribute to solving some of the world’s pressing challenges. Corporates, startups, innovators and development agencies are similarly excited about exploring the exponential impacts that possibly can be created, leveraging digital technologies. At Intellecap, we have been working with a range of clients on developing solutions, assessing the market potential and bringing tech solutions to market. A glimpse on Intellecap’s Point of View around the role of emerging technologies to contribute to Africa’s development agenda and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals can be found on the Microsite Africa 2030 – Technologies that shape Africa’s tomorrow.

While the potential is great, the elephant in the room is still how to actually foster technology adoption und unleash the potential of digital technologies by creating solutions that users at the “Base of the Pyramid” actually use and accept. Tech enthusiasts often refer to Africa’s leapfrogging story with the mobile phone revolution. With the spread of e-commerce, the continent may once again leapfrog and skip building physical supermarkets. Over the past years, we have been working with a range of tech startups and innovators to help create digital solution that address gaps in sectors like healthcare, energy, agriculture, water and sanitation, and financial inclusion, and while some of the innovations have scaled, others have not reached the expected potential. So the question remains:

Why do some tech innovations die while others survive?  

I am a fan of history and sociology of technology and thought a look into history may help to get some insights on technology adoption. Some interesting lessons can be drawn looking at the history of the bicycle: In retrospective, the evolution of the bicycle shows that technology adoption is not at all a linear process. In the 1880s, multiple variants of the bicycle with quite different features were present in the market – for those interested, some of the models included the Boneshaker, Penny Farthing Bicycle, or Lawson’s Bicyclette, and a range of variants with names like “Xtraordinary”, “Geard Facile” or the “Kangeroo”. So why did some variants die and others survived?  One of my favourite articles on tech adoption by Trevor J. Pinch and Wiebe E. Bijker has some interesting insights:[1]


  1. Social groups matter!

Part of the answer lies in understanding the meaning different organized social groups such as institutions or organizations as well as organized or unorganized individuals attached to different variants of the bicycle. Instead of talking about the consumer or user, deciphering different social groups and the meaning they give to the technology artefact is important to understand the selection process. For the social group of young men, for example, riding a bicycle was primarily for sport rather than transport. On the other hand, for the female cyclist, an increasingly important social group at the time, reaching the church on Sunday in a faster manner was a key value proposition.

  1. Problem definition matters!

Different social groups had different problems with the technology features: Older men, for example, were primarily concerned about the safety, whereas women cyclists were concerned about whether a particular model was suitable for the dress code at the time. Other perceived problems included the speed or the vibration problem. These concerns spurred technology improvement and the introduction of brakes, the lower front wheel, spring frames, or the air tire. Again, solutions were interpreted differently by different social groups:  For some social groups, the air tire was a solution to the vibration problem, for others it was a means to going faster.

  1. Closure matters!

It took a process of a total of 19 years (1879 – 98) that the “safety bicycle” as we know it today with low wheels, rear chain drive, diamond frame and air tires evolved. So how did this stabilization happen? Generally, technology closure happens when controversy disappears. This does not imply that problems are solved, but that the relevant social groups view the problem as solved. Advertisement has played a key role in promoting how “perfectly safe” the bicycle was – and rhetorically closed the matter.  Re-defining the problem was another way to close controversy: While the air tire was perceived by the masses as aesthetically ugly, mounting the air tire onto a racing bicycle changed the perception. Opponents of the air tire were astonished when they witnessed the speed that could be achieved, leaving all rival cyclists behind. The problem was hence re-defined towards how to go fast – and by this redefinition, closure was achieved among two important social groups, the cyclists and the public.

The wider context: Tech innovations for social good

This look into history has important take-aways for the conversation around ‘technology for social good’: Technology adoption is essentially a social matter and needs to be deciphered in this manner. Social groups and the meaning they give to technology and different features as well as the perceived solution are key. Whether we create a hardware or software tech innovation for the ‘Base of the Pyramid’, technology adoption requires us to understand what features are perceived as a solution by the maximum numbers of relevant social groups in our context. – Next time, you want to understand whether an innovation creates value for a mass market, it may therefore be useful to map out all social groups that have a view about the technology, assess what problem they attach to the technology as well the perceived solution of a particular tech feature. What is needed to create closure among a large number of social groups?

[1] Trevor J. Pinch and Wiebe E. Bijker: The Social Construction of Facts and Artefacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each other, The Social Construction of Technological Systems, MIT 2012, p. 11-44