The interaction of design hierarchies and market concepts in technological evolution

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Citation: Kim B. Clark (1985) The interaction of design hierarchies and market concepts in technological evolution. Research Policy (RSS)
DOI (original publisher): 10.1016/0048-7333(85)90007-1
Semantic Scholar (metadata): 10.1016/0048-7333(85)90007-1
Sci-Hub (fulltext): 10.1016/0048-7333(85)90007-1
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): The interaction of design hierarchies and market concepts in technological evolution
Tagged: Business (RSS)


Kim Clark's article begins with the work on industry dynamics that had dominated the literature on technological innovation up until that point. In particular, he frames his exploration very firmly in terms of Abernathy and Utterback's work on industry life cycles which, in Clark's term, describe the process whereby designs in industries go from being fluid to frigid. Using, but not depending very heavily, on industry on innovations within the automobile industry and the semiconductor industry, Clark tries to look at the way that issues related to product design interact.

Clark's basic point is that, "the logic of problem solving in design and the formation of concepts that underlie choice in the marketplace impose a hierarchal structure on the evolution of technology."

Clark relies very heavily on a couple pages from the architect and designer Christopher Alexander's work on the fact that a design problem is an interaction between the form in question and its context. He then both plots the nature and time of innovations in automobiles broken down by component. His argument is that design follows a "logic" that is dependent on both Alexander's concept of a match between form and context but that tries to connect it to issues of customer choice and the evolution in the way that customers choose as well.

For example, he explains that when the point of a design was unclear for automobiles (i.e., when it was seen as a horseless carriage) design focused on the key issues that distinguished it from horse-draw carriages -- the engine. As times goes in, innovation continued but it worked within subsystems in a hierarchical and design-driven fashion. Clark uses the term "working through" a particular technical agenda to characterize the way that a design is explored.

Using information from a literature on information processing, Clark argues that customers engage in processes of "grouping" and "distinguishing" and that users rely on early concepts. Just as in the example of the horse-drawn carriage above, this ends up framing up debate.

Clark then returns with this logic to the Abernathy and Utterback model as a way of both explaining and complicating it. He examples that they may be interested in frequency of process and product innovations but is careful to distinguish this from significance. He also points out that process innovation can lead to and frame essential product innovations. At this point, the applicable and interaction between his framework and the earlier ones still seem somewhat muddled. His key takeaway is that, "a focus on problem solving and learning in design and marketing may be a fruitful direction for further work."

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

The article is a reasonably famous article in the core "management of technological innovation" literature and in a number of ways can be seen a stepping stone toward a number of research projects and papers that would end up become more highly cited and famous. Its can be seen as a stepping stone between the literatures on industries and industry dynamics (i.e., the work by Abernathy and Utterback) and more firm-specific work on design like Henderson and Clark and, especially toward his further work on design and modularity with Carliss Baldwin and others.