A case for adoption

Adopting Ellie

What does it take for a technology innovation to tip over from niche adoption to mass acceptance?

I don’t have to make a case for adopting a pup to share your home. If it’s right for you, you’ll do it. What’s on my mind today is how something new takes off from being a novelty to becoming part of the status quo, adopted by all.

Surrounded by mounting evidence of how useful medical detection dogs can be for human health, I wonder what it will take for this to be adopted widely. Early adopters are reaping the benefits in schools, entertainment, and transportation. Mass adoption would save untold numbers of lives, as cancers are caught earlier, and infectious diseases are prevented from spreading.

As the deaths from Covid 19 surge relentlessly toward 1 million in the US alone, this is urgent. And yet, we’re stuck in the early adoption phase.

Innovation Adoption Theory

Adoption theories are based on a graph that looks something like this:

Innovation adoption theory curve

According to innovation adoption theory, any given population sorts itself into 5 groups, based on individual willingness to embrace something new. Innovators and early adopters jump aboard early on. These individuals have a strong affinity for novelty and risk-taking. About two-thirds of the population falls into the early and late majority groupings. These folks rely on the experiences of others and modifications that make the new thing more appealing or accessible.

The line in the graph above shows the accumulated adoption percentage, demonstrating the steep curve as the two majority groups join in. The gap between early adoption and mass acceptance is called ‘the chasm’. Success and failure rely entirely on whether adoption bridges that chasm to achieve critical mass.

To tip from early adoption to critical mass requires more than a brilliant idea or even perfect execution. What it does require is social capital: relationships, trust, shared information, and shared experiences.

The role of influence

Innovators and early adopters can embrace something new based only on the appeal of the thing itself. They don’t need much approval from others. In fact, being one of the first can be a huge motivator for this type of person. Any innovator needs these kinds of people, who give early feedback to improve the innovation. The innovator also depends on them to influence others who aren’t so comfortable with risk.

Those in the majority need to be influenced to adopt the new thing.  Best case, they need to know someone who’s used the new thing and can recommend it. Lacking that, they need to hear from trusted sources and people who share their affiliations.  This influence isn’t intellectual, and it’s not based on need.

About 15 years ago, no one outside Apple needed the iPhone, which was launched in July 2007. By January 2010, the tipping point was reached with early majority adoption, and soon many people thought they needed either the iPhone or an Android.  By the time people started witnessing wider adoption, the fear of missing out took over and drove more rapid adoption.

Trust is critical

As Ezra Klein has pointed out, if every country worldwide had been in the 75th percentile of trust in government, 13% of global Covid infections would have been prevented. More people would have been influenced by their government to adopt preventative measures established by state and national leaders. Even more powerfully, if all countries were in the 75th percentile for trusting fellow citizens, 40% of global Covid infections could have been prevented. Those measures would have become habit, reinforced daily by those around them.

These data are from a recently published article in the Lancet. Klein interviewed Thomas Bollyky, one of the paper’s authors, who had this to say:

“When confronted with a novel, contagious virus the best way for governments to protect their citizens is to convince them to take the measures to protect themselves,” Bollyky said. “Especially in free societies the success of that effort depends on trust — trust between citizens and their government, and trusts between citizens themselves.”

“The Covid Policy That Really Mattered Wasn’t a Policy”, Ezra Klein, NY Times, 6 February 2022

In this context, the policies and health measures are not themselves as important as the broad use of these measures. To be effective, any policy must have a critical mass of people adopting the policy. The ever-deepening social divisions in countries around the world will only impede fighting this pandemic and future health crises.

Reaching the tipping point

The medical detection dog innovation has a chicken-egg problem. Unlike corporate innovations that are controlled centrally and can be manufactured to meet demand, this innovation relies on a distributed means of production. Training dogs for human assistance (service animals, law enforcement) occurs across very many locations, and training dogs for cancer and Covid screening are similarly dispersed. Without a defined market, there’s little incentive for anyone except innovators to invest in this rigorous training.

For adoption, people will need assurance that the dogs screening them have been trained to a standard. Standards are being developed, but this takes time. Further, without a pressing demand for the standards, what’s the rush?

And yet, the real challenge is in building acceptance amongst worldwide populations. What will prove the tipping point that leads to wide adoption of this life-saving innovation in health care?

Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

Although we live in a time of diminishing trust between people, perhaps optimism for this innovation is warranted. Humans may trust dogs more than other humans, and they may care more about dogs they don’t know than other humans. Not every human is a dog-lover and not every dog is worthy of trust, but  humans and dogs have co-evolved to create reciprocal emotional bonds.

We interpret dog behavior (tail wags, the goofy grin, the playfulness and soulful looks) as safe and trustworthy. The positive feelings we have about a dog can spread to human relationships as well. Whereas trust in health care workers has eroded, perhaps interacting with a trustworthy dog and its handler would engender feelings of security and safety.

If nothing else, perhaps the dogs themselves will make it possible for us to adopt this life-saving innovation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *