01 Jun 2015
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Faculty Q&A: Reemerging Technologies

Assistant Professor Ryan Raffaelli explains how mechanical watches, independent bookstores, and even vinyl records have found new life
by April White

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Your research examines industries that once seemed doomed but have experienced a comeback. How does this happen?

I did my dissertation work on the Swiss watch industry, and I looked at what it takes for a technology to reemerge. For over two centuries, Swiss mechanical watches dominated their industry. Ironically, in the late 1960s the Swiss introduced the first bat-tery-powered quartz watch. But within seven years, the Japanese brought the price of quartz watches down by 100-fold because of their expertise in electronics. A decade later, two-thirds of all Swiss watch companies were gone.

And yet today, open up any major newspaper and the first thing you see are mechanical watch ads. The Swiss now own between 55 and 60 percent of the global market value for watches. They were able to redefine what it means to wear a Swiss watch.

Several industries have followed a similar path. For example, the fountain pen industry nearly collapsed after the introduction of ballpoint pens. Today, people are still buying fountain pens not because they are seamless writing instruments but because, like Swiss watches, a fountain pen sends a very strong signal about who you are.

What do reemerging industries have in common?

When an industry faces a shock, it can attempt to compete directly with the new technology or retreat into a niche. However, some technologies are well suited for a third strategy, one that’s anchored on the idea of redefinition. This requires redefining the values attached to the product, as well as the identity of the organizations and community that produce and sell them. For example, the Swiss redefined mechanical watches as luxury goods infused with craftsmanship and beauty.

Something I’ve studied recently is the resurgence of the independent bookstore industry. How is this happening? These bookstores are no longer competing on price or inventory. Instead, the number of reading groups has gone up. The number of events booksellers are hosting has gone up. They are creating communities.

What industries won’t make a comeback?

Reemergence is less likely for technologies whose value is purely instrumental or functional. That’s why we’re not going to see a reemergence of VHS tapes.

So why are we getting excited about vinyl again? Because vinyl represents an “experience” of listening to music in its purest form. There have always been audiophiles out there in the world who said this is the only way to listen to music. But today a new generation raised on digital music is also taking notice.

Is reemergence a short-lived trend?

Reemergent technologies often communicate authenticity, community, and craftsmanship that extend beyond their use value. In an online digital world, consumers are searching for ways to reclaim these values in many of the industries I’ve studied.

What advice would you offer to an endangered industry?

If you foresee your core technology is reaching the end of its lifecycle, it can feel like you are walking closer and closer to a cliff. A common response is to circle the wagons; to anchor down on the core values that have defined your products; and to become very inward focused.

And while this sometimes makes sense, my research finds that successful leaders surround themselves with “entrepreneurs” who push them to go in totally new directions, but they also seek out “guardians” whose goal is to protect and make sure that the core—what’s authentic—remains true. Both types of individuals are important during periods of reinvention. They force you to answer the question: What can we let go of and must we hold onto?

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