Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

Crossing the Chasm

Probably the greatest complaint I’ve heard from researchers is that their sterling research results aren’t getting used.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s physical or social science, the complaint is the same.

One of the reasons for these complaints is that most researchers have no idea how long it takes to implement a new idea.  This hasn’t been thoroughly researched but the few papers I’ve found are consistent with my own experience – on average it takes about 15 years for new ideas to get widely adopted.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s a shiny new widget or an innovative medical intervention or a new communications approach; it’s going to take a long time to get a new concept into practice (if it ever gets there at all).

It is well-established that dissemination of new ideas follows a sort of bell-shaped curve but with a gap toward the beginning – labeled “The Chasm” in the diagram (adapted from Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm).  The diagram points to the different motivation of the visionaries – enthusiasts who intuitively grasp the potential value of an innovation; and the pragmatists – realists who will adopt the innovation only if it is proven to be worth the effort to implement it, i.e., will adopt it based on its return on investment.


Thus, the key to crossing the chasm is the return on investment.  As I said in an earlier post,

“…return on investment – how much the community benefits vs the costs of implementation.  It is important to recognize that the investment is never only financial – it includes development of the human capital needed to deploy the innovation and, often, the institutional capital (e.g., working with a regulator) to gain acceptance for implementation.”

If you have an innovation you want to see implemented, the following is aimed at you – a few questions to ask yourself to help cross the chasm as rapidly as possible.

Let’s start by looking at the investment.

How much?  Of what?  It’s easy to figure out the financial costs for implementation – and very easy to get fooled by them.  In my own career, I’ve trivialized the cost by saying to myself – “No capital is needed, and the people to do X are already there.”  That might be true, but only if the people already there actually have the time to do X, i.e., they’re just sitting around waiting for your brilliant innovation.  Further, the people already there may not be trained, or even qualified, to do X.  In addition, there will be costs associated with putting in place the social and physical infrastructure (e.g., people, policies, procedures; materials) to support the innovation.  And beyond that, you as the innovator need to be sure that institutional costs (changing policies or regulations) are minimized, or at least clearly identified.

What needs to be torn down?  If the innovation is replacing something that already exists, there will be “tear-down” costs.  Think of tearing down an old bridge to put up a new one.  Or the transition costs of going from a government-centric to a neighborhood-centric system.  If there is an influential champion for the status quo he can be a major hurdle to crossing the chasm.  Further, you need to identify what else relies on the existing infrastructure:  if it is necessary to have parallel systems doing the same thing, your innovation is likely the loser (on the “Better the Devil you know” principle).  Thus, you need to look at the compatibility of your innovation with what’s already there (When I wrote about implementation I called this “Fit.”).  If we’re talking about the built environment (or engineering innovations, in general) this means that it’s much easier to do this before something else is in place (preferably as part of the baseline in the case of new projects).

Who pays; who benefits?  This question reveals what can be a major barrier to crossing the chasm – the situation in which the person or organization that has to invest its capital won’t see much if any return on that investment.  A good example is burying power lines.  The utility that owns the lines has to bear the cost of burying them but receives little or no financial return.  On the other hand, the public reaps the benefit of the buried lines by avoiding business interruption, for example.  One way to overcome this barrier is to point out the non-financial returns on the investment that the investor may receive (e.g., good will resulting in wider public acceptance of rate hikes); or to find ways to leverage third-party grants to reduce the investor’s burden.

If we look at the “return” some questions to ask yourself are:

What is the return on the investment?  This seems a simple – and simplistic – question, but it certainly has been a barrier to success for several community resilience projects.  We’re used to calculating financial costs; we’re not very good at social or institutional costs, or at avoided costs.  In almost all cases, we don’t even have a good handle on what the appropriate “currency” should be.  There have been some good efforts to develop a “social return on investment” (e.g., by Liesel Ritchie) but those are not yet generally accepted.  This is a vacant space that social entrepreneurs are likely to fill.

How soon?  Most businesses won’t invest in anything that doesn’t promise a return in less than three years; and the likelihood of investment decreases sharply if it takes longer than a year to see a return.  In my experience, communities are no more patient.  You, as a prospective innovator, need to make a realistic determination of how long before some return is realized.  If it won’t be for years, you have to find ways to speed up the process.

Can you prove effectiveness?  Ultimately, the Pragmatists will be won over by the proven value of your innovation.  That means that you have to have strong evidence that the innovation will have a positive impact.  And as you move from the Early Adopters to the Laggards, that evidence has to be even more bullet-proof.  That also means that you have to be careful to control expectations.  It’s in the nature of visionaries to over-claim and over-sell whatever has taken their fancy; the onus is on you to be as precise as possible in what you claim for your innovation.

We live in a time of change and uncertainty.  For the most part, our institutions and our physical infrastructure (especially at the community level) were built in less turbulent times.  If our communities are to become resilient to future challenges, innovation almost seems a necessity.  But it is up to you – the innovators – to make that happen.  Good ideas are a dime a dozen; successful innovation requires reducing good ideas to practice and having them implemented.  Being able to show a positive return on investment is a prerequisite to implementation.  If you can positively answer the questions above – and the others they lead to – then your innovation will be a success, and our communities stronger and more resilient.