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  • Istituto di Economia
  • Seminario

A new view on radical innovation

Date 27.04.2023 time

Piazza Martiri della Libertà, 33 , 56127 Italy

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The Institute of Economics will hold a seminar meeting as part of its Seminar Series on Thursday, April 27, 2023: Koen Frenken from Utrecht University will present the paper "A new view on radical innovation".



The field of innovation studies looks at the origins and effects of innovation in society. In scholarship on innovation, a common key distinction among innovations is between incremental and radical innovation. This distinction is central to theories about innovation, as the origins and effects of innovation are deemed to be different from the sources and consequences of incremental innovation. Our thinking about radical innovation, however, has remained rather limited in two respects. First, scholarly work about radical innovation tends to focus on technology embodied in artefacts diffusing through markets. As a result, influential theories about radical innovation, including theories on 'technological paradigm', 'architectural innovation' and 'disruptive innovation' are biased towards (a.) technological innovation (b.) carried out by firms (c.) operating on markets. This is not to say all scholarly work applies this focus. There is an increasing interest (ad a.) in non-technological innovation, including on innovation in service innovation, organisational innovation, and social innovation; (ad b.) in innovations developed by actors other than firms, including innovation by users, scientists, NGOs and governments; and (ad c.) in innovations diffusing outside the market, be it within households, communities, and professions. Having said this, the main focus in theorising still remains on technological innovation by firms operating on markets, with theorising about other types of innovation processes is generally juxtaposing itself against the exemplar of technological innovation by firms operating on markets. A second limitation, or weakness, of current theorising about radical innovation holds that the concept of radical innovation remains ill-defined. A concise survey of papers in three leading journals teaches us that most scholars refrain from defining radical innovation. It is further noteworthy that in many papers the terms ‘radical innovation’, ‘breakthrough innovation’, ‘disruptive innovation’ and ‘discontinuous innovation’ are used interchangeably. This conceptual confusion has been highlighted at an early stage of the development of the innovation studies field (Ehrnberg, 1995) but many scholars still use the terms interchangeably. In this essay, I attempt to overcome these limitations by approaching radical innovation in a more general way. I build on early evolutionary theorising of 'technological regimes' (Nelson and Winter, 1977) and supplemented by institutional theory of the 'categorical imperative' (Zuckerman, 1999) penalising innovations that do not fit within established categories. The two lenses do not only help to theorise about innovation in more general ways, beyond the bias towards on firms, technology and markets, but also provide a framework to compare the dominant theories that were actually focused on firm-technology-market nexus. In particular, an institutional approach helps to theoretically distinguish innovation that takes place within existing categories from innovation that redefines categories from innovation leading to new categories, bringing the notions of breakthrough, disruptive and radical innovation under one theoretical umbrella.


The seminar will be held in blended mode. In person participation is possible in Aula 6 and available seats are allocated on a first come first served basis. For online participation please use the following link.