The Power of a Mobilized Community

A new book highlights the role of communities in the diffusion of radical innovations.

Want success for your radical innovation? Think like a community organizer.

That’s one of the messages of Market Rebels: How Activists Make or Break Radical Innovations (Princeton University Press, 2009), a new book by Hayagreeva Rao. In Market Rebels, Rao, who is the Atholl McBean Professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resources at the
Stanford Graduate School of Business, takes a fascinating look at the role activist communities can play in the diffusion of radical innovations. According to Rao, radical innovations often get accepted—or rejected—when a group mobilizes around a cause it cares about (which he calls a “hot cause”) through collective activities that build a sense of community or identity (which he calls “cool mobilization”).

For example, Rao describes the role that computer hobbyists and their clubs played in launching a personal computing movement in the 1960s and 1970s. He also details how automobile clubs helped legitimize the automobile in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century—by organizing “reliability contests” that allowed the public to see the capabilities of automobiles as a form of transportation. Activist communities can also work against innovation, however: In one chapter, Rao describes how activists limited biotechnology research in Germany.

Ever since Adam Smith, writes Rao, “economists have tended to see markets as guided by an invisible hand, wherein individuals acting in their self-interest enhance collective welfare even if it is not their intention to do so. In this focus, economists have largely neglected to understand how the joined hands of activists and their recruits make or break radical innovation in markets.”

—Martha E.