On Jan. 23, the world lost a pioneering thinker on innovation. Clayton Christiansen, the Harvard Business School professor and consultant who coined the phrase “disruptive innovation,” died from leukemia-related complications. He was 67. Dubbed by the Economist as “the most influential management thinker of his time,” Christiansen had sent shock waves through the business community with his theory that the same practices that make companies successful could also expose them to failure. In his book The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail (Harvard Business School Publishing, 1997), Christiansen challenged the convention that prioritizing the needs of key customers and advancing technologies incrementally was a pathway to success. Instead, Christiansen saw companies at risk of missing unpredictable waves of innovation and ultimately undermining consumer bases.

Although Christiansen did not focus on building construction, applying his theory to building products is not difficult. This begs the question, how applicable is “disruptive innovation” to architecture and how might architects participate in this phenomenon?

Simply defined, disruptive technologies are emerging approaches that are initially not desired by mainstream consumers nor viewed as profitable for established companies, but do eventually develop a significant foothold in the mainstream market. It is precisely these technologies’ initial lack of commercial appeal that provides an eventual competitive advantage. At first, corporate leadership might dismiss these upstart offerings as irrelevant and focus on so-called sustaining, or incremental, innovations. Only when it’s too late do leaders realize that these fringe technologies have poached their consumer base. In The Innovator’s Dilemma and other writings, Christiansen provides examples of disruptive innovations: the personal computer, the iPhone, consumer-accessible copying, and discount retail. In each instance, a seemingly harmless offering eventually out-competed entrenched ones.