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A definition of emerging technology

Is emerging technology defined by the human dynamics it creates?

Defining emergence

Last year, Nesta funded a working paper that analysed the literature on quantitative techniques for  future-oriented technology analysis (FTA). Thanks to the authors, I had a fascinating conversation with Jeffery Alexander from the Stanford Research Institute when he visited the UK last summer.

In a recent paper (£), Alexander et al offered a definition of what has to happen for a technology to be described as emerging, with three necessary conditions, P1-3:

Emerging technology is (P1) a new kind of activity (P2) amongst a subgroup (P3) in a broader professional or technological community.

How Bitcoin fits the definition

For the last year or so, Bitcoin and other digitally-native cryptocurrencies have been the poster child of emerging technologies. They have been applauded as the saviours of accessible finance, and scorned as the purveyors of a new kind of global black market. Bitcoin can be traced back to a paper published in 2008 on the cypherpunk mailing list (which counts Julian Assange among its members).  The paper detailed how an algorithm could be used to produce a meaningful digital currency, which requires no humans intervention – no central bank. This fuelled the development a new community working specifically on cryptocurrencies (fulfilling criterion P1). They were supported by a broader community of expertise – the open source security technology community (fulfilling P2).   

A shift in scale and type of activity came when people started to develop services based on Bitcoin in 2011 – see the infographic  on the history of Bitcoin for more details.  This changed the way the broader community operated (P3) as the cryptocurrency experts reorganised themselves around service provision rather than developing new code.

Definition in progress

Nesta-funded projects that use online data to understand emerging technologies challenge this definition that fits Bitcoin so well. The first project includes interview-based research to better understand health innovation. They pick up on several kinds of communities or groups that discuss new health technologies online. There is a complex relationship between these groups; they are not a well-defined subset of a wider professional community. The second project investigates security technology conferences. This is about emergence in a particular time and space, dependencies not captured by Alexander’s definition. The final project on synthetic biology looks at an area with highly-visible leaders and a clear media narrative about re-engineering living organisms. Is this media-friendly face that defines the community around an emerging technology? Or could be a different group entirely – those working on less dramatic changes to biology in eg agricultural science and who receive less media attention?


Jessica Bland

Jessica Bland

Jessica Bland

Principal Researcher in Futures

Jessica was a principal researcher in the Policy and Research team. She explored how Nesta could best support responsible development of disruptive technology. She organised Hot Topics…

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