• Economist Joseph Schumpeter coined the theory of “creative destruction” in 1942, which suggests that business cycles operate under long waves of innovation.
  • An example of this is the internet, which disrupted entire industries, from media to retail.
  • Expert Dorothy Neufeld has analyzed the 6 different waves of innovation, from water power in 1775 to robots and drones in 2020.
This infographic details the history of innovation cycles
The history of innovation cycles.
Image: Visual Capitalist

Long waves: How innovation cycles influence growth

Creative destruction plays a key role in entrepreneurship and economic development.

Coined by economist Joseph Schumpeter in 1942, the theory of “creative destruction” suggests that business cycles operate under long waves of innovation. Specifically, as markets are disrupted, key clusters of industries have outsized effects on the economy.

Take the railway industry, for example. At the turn of the 19th century, railways completely reshaped urban demographics and trade. Similarly, the internet disrupted entire industries—from media to retail.

The above infographic shows how innovation cycles have impacted economies since 1785, and what’s next for the future.

Innovation cycles: The six waves

From the first wave of textiles and water power in the industrial revolution, to the internet in the 1990s, here are the six waves of innovation and their key breakthroughs.

this chart shows the six waves of innovation and their key breakthroughs
The 6 waves of innovation.
Image: Visual Capitalist

During the first wave of the Industrial Revolution, water power was instrumental in manufacturing paper, textiles, and iron goods. Unlike the mills of the past, full-sized dams fed turbines through complex belt systems. Advances in textiles brought the first factory, and cities expanded around them.

With the second wave, between about 1845 and 1900, came significant rail, steam, and steel advancements. The rail industry alone affected countless industries, from iron and oil to steel and copper. In turn, great railway monopolies were formed.

The emergence of electricity powering light and telephone communication through the third wave dominated the first half of the 1900s. Henry Ford introduced the Model T, and the assembly line transformed the auto industry. Automobiles became closely linked with the expansion of the American metropolis. Later, in the fourth wave, aviation revolutionized travel.

After the internet emerged by the early 1990s, barriers to information were upended. New media changed political discourse, news cycles, and communication in the fifth wave. The internet ushered in a new frontier of globalization, a borderless landscape of digital information flows.

Market power

To the economist Schumpeter, technological innovations boosted economic growth and improved living standards.

However, these disruptors can also have a tendency to lead to monopolies. Especially during a cycle’s upswing, the strongest players realize wide margins, establish moats, and fend off rivals. Typically, these cycles begin when the innovations become of general use.

Of course, this can be seen today—never has the world been so closely connected. Information is more centralized than it has ever been, with Big Tech dominating global search traffic, social networks, and advertising.

Like the Big Tech behemoths of today, the rail industry had the power to control prices and push out competitors during the 19th century. At the peak, listed shares of rail companies on the New York Stock Exchange made up 60% of total stock market capitalization.

AI, machine learning, technology

How is the Forum helping governments to responsibly adopt AI technology?

The World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, in partnership with the UK government, has developed guidelines for more ethical and efficient government procurement of artificial intelligence (AI) technology. Governments across Europe, Latin America and the Middle East are piloting these guidelines to improve their AI procurement processes.

Our guidelines not only serve as a handy reference tool for governments looking to adopt AI technology, but also set baseline standards for effective, responsible public procurement and deployment of AI – standards that can be eventually adopted by industries.

Example of a challenge-based procurement process mentioned in the guidelines
Example of a challenge-based procurement process mentioned in the guidelines

We invite organizations that are interested in the future of AI and machine learning to get involved in this initiative. Read more about our impact.

Waves of change

As cycle longevity continues to shorten, the fifth wave may have a few years left under its belt.

The sixth wave, marked by artificial intelligence and digitization across information of things (IoT), robotics, and drones, will likely paint an entirely new picture. Namely, the automation of systems, predictive analytics, and data processing could make an impact. In turn, physical goods and services will likely be digitized. The time to complete tasks could shift from hours to even seconds.

At the same time, clean tech could come to the forefront. At the heart of each technological innovation is solving complex problems, and climate concerns are becoming increasingly pressing. Lower costs in solar PV and wind are also predicating efficiency advantages.