Diffusion of Innovation: Theory, History & Examples

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  • 0:01 Diffusion of Innovation
  • 0:42 Spreading Ideas
  • 1:56 Process of Diffusion
  • 5:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

New ideas and technologies find ways to spread around the world, but it actually takes a lot to fully adopt them into a new society. Explore the idea of diffusion of innovation, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Diffusion of Innovation

My, what a cool piece of technology you've got there! Really, that's a neat gadget! Did you invent it? Did someone in your society invent it? Well, then how did you get it? I mean, think about it, how do ideas and technologies spread from one group to another? Turns out, there's a theory about that. The diffusion of innovation theory seeks to explain how new ideas and technologies spread through a culture. So, whadya say? Want to go back and watch the history of that gadget? 'Course you do!

Spreading Ideas

What is the diffusion of innovations theory? Well, like I said, it's a model that explains how new ideas and technologies pass through a culture, but think about what that means. Human history is chock full of innovation. Around 3500 BCE, people in Mesopotamia developed the first true systems of writing, and that innovation slowly spread around the Mediterranean through trade. Around the year 100 CE, the Chinese created paper, and again the innovation spread across trade routes, being absorbed into nearly every culture it touched.

In the mid-20th century, a professor of communication studies named Everett Rogers noticed that certain ideas and technologies like writing and paper were not just used by other cultures, but that they became parts of that culture. That's what true diffusion is: the complete absorption of an innovation into society. Rogers developed the diffusion of innovation theory and published it in his 1962 book titled, simply enough, Diffusion of Innovations.

Process of Diffusion

That's the background to this theory; now let's see it in action. Still got that doo-dad of yours? Great! Let's see where it came from. According to Rogers, the process of diffusion of innovations has five steps. Let's start at the beginning.

Step one: knowledge, the first exposure to an innovation. This gadget of yours was invented over here in this culture, and look at that, here comes someone from your culture! They see the innovation, but that's it. Now for stage two: persuasion, in which the individual becomes interested and tries to learn more about it. This leads to stage three: decision. That person must now decide whether or not he or she is going to use this idea. Stage four then becomes implementation, as the individual begins to actually use the innovation, and finally, we have confirmation: the final decision to continue using this innovation.

There we go: the innovation has been diffused through one person. Now, the diffusion process is a slow one that takes time, travelling from individual to individual to individual. So, each person must go through the diffusion process, and as they do, society itself goes through this same process. This means that you can apply this theory on both personal and social levels, and both have to complete the entire process for true diffusion to occur. And actually, this can happen multiple ways. If every person in a society makes the individual decision to adopt an innovation, we call that a collective innovation-decision.

For example, nobody told you that you were required by law to use social media - you chose to. We all did, and the innovation was diffused throughout society.

The opposite of this is an authority innovation-decision, in which people in positions of power make a decision for all of society. It's not always as bad as it sounds. For example, there are governments in Africa that are making the decision to introduce contraceptives into society in order to reduce the spread of HIV and AIDS. Rather than waiting for this innovation to be individually adopted, the government is speeding up the process.

This leads to the question of rate of adoption. According to Rogers, the entire diffusion process goes through five categories of adopters, or groups that adopt ideas in the same way.

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