Disruptive Innovation and a Global Marketplace

The Accessible and Assistive Technology industry is undergoing a period of intense change, but it remains challenging to predict the impact and outcomes of that change. Traditional providers face an uncertain outlook and must seek ways to respond and regain control as external influences impact upon both design and business models, driven by trends in technology design and use, public policy, changing aspirations of the market and a public funding crisis.

It has often been said that change is the only constant, and therefore some commentators suggest that this period of change is no different to those experienced in the past. However, whilst we may have seen technology shift significantly in the past, we have not previously faced the combined impact of such shift with changing business models, It is this combination that offers both threats and opportunities for the development of Assistive technology.

Understanding Disruption

Christensen (1997) defined disruptive technologies as those that displace an established technology, shaking up and industry, or which offer a ground-breaking product that creates a completely new industry.  He defined new technology into two categories: sustaining and disruptive. The former is founded upon incremental change to a proven or established technology. Whereas disruptive technology may seek to “wipe the slate clean” offering an entirely new means of fulfilling a need.

In many cases existing suppliers tend to favour sustaining technologies, founded upon their knowledge of what has proven effective in the past, they evolve technologies adding features or functionality. Such companies may struggle to recognise and respond to such disruptive technologies, and may only seek to replicate such innovation once their market has been disrupted, placing the company at risk.

Disruption in the AT industry

There are many examples of disruption occurring within the AT industry. Some of the most obvious have seen a shift from dedicated hardware devices to software solutions based upon tablets and mobile phones. Increasingly, solutions for those with communication impairments, low vision, and hearing loss are built upon mobile and portable platforms, and the more radical are innovating through wearable technologies and the internet of things.

Alongside this, we can observe an equally important disruption to business models. Traditionally AT users purchased their solutions with a single large upfront payment, major updates were purchased as needed. Because of the level of initial investment required, such payments were often funded through purchases made by public bodies. In effect, often the “user” and the “customer” were separate. Current models involve moving to low initial investment, with in app purchases or subscription models funding ongoing use and upgrades. This combination of technology and business model change is the basis of disruption to the assistive technology industry.

Disruption and the Global Marketplace

Innovation is driven from models of development where AT companies work closely with familiar organisations such as those universities who develop intellectual property, and then licence it on an open or propriety basis. But, as global demographics shift towards an increasing aging and disabled population, we are observing new innovators and entrepreneurs emerging outside of traditional hubs of expertise and experience. Globally, we see the rapid growth of both IP exploitation at universities and publicly funded business incubation facilities. Many of these are supporting new approaches to the production of assistive technologies. This diversity of new players operating beyond any traditional networks presents the industry with fresh challenges. The young innovators engaging in development are looking again at how needs are met, rather than considering how current solutions can be improved. They are entirely willing, and motivated by “wiping the slate clean”.

Responding to Risk and Opportunity

Responding to this, is a challenge to the industry. Whilst we can recognise the opportunity for radical innovation to benefit people with a disability. We can equally observe the threats to the status quo.

To address both, the industry needs to respond positively and proactively. Indicators of risk of disruption include:

  1. Changing market expectations of devices
  2. Changing Technology trends
  3. Change that addresses cost imperatives
  4. Increased Community engagement

With the changing business model, the relationship between suppliers and consumers is changing. Low initial investment and subscriptions offers people with a disability the opportunity to select their own solutions and self-fund these without the need for targeted public funding. As customers they act as part of that community that provide both product feedback and wider behavioural data that will influence any future technologies developed.

However, a second tier of community engagement emerges. The industry needs to look widely at innovations from emerging researchers, who may choose to disseminate outside of existing academic networks with a much greater focus upon creating products rather than writing research papers. New ways for the industry to engage with the developers of potential products will be needed, reflecting change in the way young entrepreneurs promote their products. These could include initial contact activities such as “speed dating” introducing developers and distributors to each other, seeking initial interest upon which discussions can be based. With the scale of potential sources of innovation, there is likely to be a role for “trusted intermediaries” to produce summaries of activity from around the globe, and to share this data with both suppliers and innovators. The use of online conferencing facilities offer the opportunity for developers to pitch ideas from any location to interested parties across the world at low cost and risk.


As we look ahead we can see that the relationships between innovators, distributors and consumers is in flux. Those companies and organisations that will be best suited to benefit from these changes will look at new ways of engaging and investing in innovation, whilst recognising a much closer and intimate relationship with end users.

Ultimately, we may see new research consortia formed, new businesses established and the existing industry contracting, undergoing acquisitions and mergers and finding new ways of delivering both goods and associated services to the increasing potential market. Whilst some may find this too great a step to take, others will thrive, although their portfolio may look radically different in the future.

Post of the month (December 2016). By David Banes, David Banes Access and Inclusion Services  www.davebanesaccess.org