Leadbeater, C. (2011) ‘The Civic Long Tail’

Leadbeater (2011) writes about ‘The Civic Long Tail,’ whereby social networking has the potential to revivify government’s relationship with the citizen. However, the examples he gives, and the proposals he offers, intersect with Christensen’s work on Disruptive Technology (1997) and Disruptive Innovation (2003, 2011).

Leadbeater’s example of the success of the London Fire Brigade is telling, because their success did not depend on a full-frontal solution (bigger, faster, more efficient fire engines) but on a targeted campaign to increase the use of smoke alarms (pp. 19-20). This tallies with Christensen’s analysis of the success of disruptive innovations:  ‘A major lesson from our studies of innovation is that disruptive innovation does not take root through a direct attack on the existing system. Instead, it must go around and underneath the system’ (2011, p. 243). As Christensen writes, elsewhere, of disruptive technologies: ‘Products based on disruptive technologies are typically cheaper, simpler, smaller, and, frequently, more convenient to use’ (Christensen 1997, p. xv).

Leadbeater also cites Charles Armstrong’s work on emergent democracy, whereby Armstrong argues that democracy is a bottom-up phenomenon, ‘a means to scale local traditions of self-government to the much larger societies, cities and nations created by industrialisation and urbanization. That meant self-government had to become more formal and structured, following clear  rules and procedures but at the cost of becoming more rigid  and less agile’ (2011, p. 22). Hence, democracy is disruptive initially, but as democracy becomes more structured and formalised its disruptive potential weakens, perhaps necessitating further disruption to revivify democracy itself.  

Christenson (2003) argues it is not the case that a new provider has mastery over a technology, whereas established providers don’t. Instead, the established provider finds that the innovation does not fit within its strategy; it is undesirable, not unattainable. Meanwhile, the disruptive provider gains a foothold and builds support. Leadbeater argues that established providers are unable to perceive the potential of disruption: ‘it is also almost inevitable that powerful incumbents heavily invested in established ways of doing things fail to recognise new needs and the potential of disruptive new technologies…. However, when technologies, consumer expectations and organizational possibilities all shift at the same time – as they are now – it often becomes difficult for established companies to continue to control their industries. New entrants emerge to pioneer new business models, which meet emerging customer needs in more effective ways. Often these new approaches come from upstarts and outsiders carrying little baggage’ (2011, p. 23). 

Leadbeater’s core argument is that innovations evolve into systems and thus lose their innovative qualities, thereby creating the innovation vacuum for a new provider. To align this argument with Christensen’s theories of disruption, the disruptive innovation displaces the sustaining innovation, but in so doing becomes the sustaining innovation over time. Hence, Sony’s transistor radio of the mid-19050s displaced the valve radio, but now people access radio via networked devices; the mid-1950s disruptive technology became the norm, whereafter it became a sustaining technology, improving its performance along established lines. Thus, in turn, it was displaced by a new disruption, which has now shifted the terms of broadcasting resulting in innovations like BBC i-Player.

Linking Leadbeater’s report, and Christensen’s work, for the enhancement of learning and teaching in H.E., it is apparent from Cann and Badge (2011) that students, too, have trusted brands, such as YouTube and Google. Therefore, H.E.I.s would be better off working with the trusted brands as platforms for their own learning material, rather than relying solely on institutional Virtual Learning Environments. Learning is less of an institutionally contained activity than it was a generation ago, and institutions are still coming to terms with the heavily diluted boundaries of learning and teaching in the twenty first century.


Cann, A.J. and Badge, J.L. (2011) ‘Reflective Social Portfolios for Feedback and Peer Mentoring,’ Schoolof Biological Sciences, University of Leicester, UK, http://hdl.handle.net/2381/9704 (accessed 6 October 2011).

Christensen, C. M. (1997) The innovator’s dilemma: when new technologies cause great firms to fail, Boston, Mass., Harvard Business School Press.

Christensen, C. M. and Raynor, M. E. (2003) The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press.

Christensen, C. M., Horn, M. B., and Johnson, C. W. (2011) Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, New York, McGraw Hill.

Leadbeater, C. (2011) ‘The Civic Long Tail,’ London, Demos.



Author: Michael Flavin

Underwater crochet champion.

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