The waves of innovation since the Industrial Revolution

28 September, 2023

Major innovations that transform sectors and create new opportunities develop in waves chiefly marked by one or more technologies that end up having a significant impact on the economy and on society.

The identification of these waves stems from the work of Joseph Schumpeter, a leading economist who focused his research on business cycles, the role of innovation and economic development.

There are six waves of innovation that have transformed both the economy and society

Since the Industrial Revolution, there has been consensus on the existence of six waves of innovation that have transformed both the economy and society.

First wave of innovation: the first technologies

The introduction of new technologies in the textile industry and the expansion of hydropower

During the first wave of innovation, which took place roughly between 1785 and 1830, new technologies were introduced that changed everything. Hydraulic energy was fundamental in industries that would mark these years, such as the textiles, paper and iron and steel production industries.

The so-called first Industrial Revolution, which began a few years before this initial wave, completely transformed the economy of the time, laying the foundations for a system that continues to this day, which transformed society forever.

The introduction of technology into economic activity enabled an acceleration of the Industrial Revolution and highlighted the importance of the “technological opportunity”: the initiation of a new technology that creates an opportunity for the development of new products and processes.

Second wave of innovation: communications

The development of steam power, the expansion of the railways and the importance of the steel industry

In this second wave of innovation, the innovation phenomenon exploded, with significant breakthroughs that had a major impact on trade and demographics.

The entry of new competitors in traditional sectors is beginning to place a higher value on innovation

The period from approximately 1845 to 1900 was marked by steam, which, among other transformations, made the expansion of the railway possible. Thanks to this, means of transport, trade and the mobility of people intensified as they left the countryside en masse to settle in increasingly large cities.

The entry of new competitors in traditional sectors and the emergence of new ones began to place greater value on innovation.

Third wave of innovation: electricity

The invention of electricity, the internal combustion engine and mass production

Production is speeding up, new product ranges are appearing, the importance of marketing is growing, and a reality is emerging that will be key in the future: the most important innovations do not arise purely from inventions, but respond to real market needs. And the answer does not have to only be technological; it is possible to innovate in the ways in which the customer is approached, in the processes, in the structures…

Electricity, the combustion engine, the expansion of the chemical industry, the telephone and mass production characterise an era in which pioneering companies such as General Electric or Ford establish lasting leadership through their ability to innovate.

Fourth wave of innovation: information

From radio to information technology to television to computers

The fourth wave of innovation is marked by the crash of 1929 and its aftermath. In terms of production, the petrochemical and automotive sectors stand out, with a growing weight in the economy and a high capacity to set the pace in research, development, design and technological innovation.

This wave would mark the next waves of IT-dominated innovation

In commercial terms, some authors identify these years as the years of aviation, which, in addition to driving technological innovations, laid the foundations for globalisation by fostering mobility around the world.

As with the rest, this wave would mark the next waves of innovation dominated by IT. Since these changes, the waves have become shorter and shorter, making it difficult to know when one wave ends and the next begins.

Fifth wave of innovation: digital technologies

The invention of the microprocessor, personal computers and the mobile revolution

The fifth wave of innovation, which began in the early 1970s, reached its peak with the spread of the Internet and the emergence of mobile technologies in the early 2000s. It is characterised by the digitalisation of information and communication, which has transformed the way in which people interact, work and consume.

More technology, more open markets and more competition have driven innovation away from individual businesses. In this way, organisational, sectoral and industry boundaries are transcended; everything is connected.

Sixth wave of innovation: energy transition and AI

The development of renewable energies, the importance of energy efficiency, electric mobility, robotics and automation

The sixth wave of innovation refers to the era of sustainable technology. The changes from the previous wave are multiplying but now the premise is that they must be sustainable.

The energy sector is the protagonist of the sixth wave innovations

The renewable energies are the paradigm of technological change of the beginning of the 21st century. The energy sector is the protagonist of the sixth wave innovations, where new business opportunities are sought that are environmentally friendly and have a positive impact on the economic, social and environmental surroundings.

Innovation culture is also impacted by these trends and companies are striving to attract and retain the best talent, establish two-way conversations with consumers, encourage open innovation, foster intrapreneurship and generally increase collaboration.

Enagás seeks to make the most of the innovations of this wave through its Corporate Entrepreneurship and Open Innovation initiative, Enagás Emprende, and this is the motto of its Ingenia Energy Challenge call for ideas and disruptive projects, which will be open until 14 January 2024.

We are also witnessing a vertiginous race to reach new heights of excellence in technologies related to robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence. In business (and even in personal life), automation is the norm in all kinds of processes and activities: the aim is to do more with less and spend time on what is really critical, eliminating repetitive, manual or low value-added tasks as far as possible.

Innovation becomes total in a system that is unpredictable and dynamic. The flow of innovation is a constant process, with fixed objectives and which requires management.

Understanding and harnessing these waves is crucial to maximising the transformative power of innovation. The coming years will be marked by Digitalisation, energy transition and process optimisation to shape a more sustainable and prosperous future for all.