Converging Technologies

Currently, new interactions between previously separate fields of research result in qualitatively new technological possibilities and, perhaps, revolutionary impacts. Nanotechnology plays an important role as an enabling technology that, in combination with information technology, biotechnology and cognitive and neuroscience, can create major changes, for example in chips technology, drug delivery or implants. This shift is one example of recurring shifts of boundaries between technological fields, and associated changes in innovation patterns and broader changes in society that are often referred to with the label ‘converging technologies’.

Datum 8 oktober 2006


Innovation is about creating value in a complete value chain. The innovation process may start off with just a vague but potentially brilliant and creative idea, the outcome can be the solution to a societal problem or a product or service fulfilling a market need. All phases of the innovation process and every link in the value chain may be the source of new insights and knowledge that can be used to create value. Innovation processes are therefore not just about science, technology or R&D. Nevertheless, a new technology is an important and often essential factor in the innovation process, but it will only be fruitful if embedded in societal developments.

At an early stage of an innovation process, the value chain is often not clear, incomplete or changing at a high rate. Innovation at this stage can be a haphazard process with many failures and frustrations, increased by expectations that are too high. Because of the uncertainties about eventual outcomes it is difficult to make a realistic planning defining the steps to be taken.

At a later stage in an innovation process, the objectives — products, process technologies — become better defined, and actors can use planning tools, such as roadmapping, to anticipate developments and to coordinate their activities. One example is the use of roadmapping in the electronics sec

tor discussed in the case study about nanoelectronics. Although innovation remains a journey into the future with ever-changing conditions and with a moving target, roadmapping is a useful exercise, which helps to anticipate future innovations as it allows to analyse, integrate and act upon the information available.

Roadmapping is even more difficult and sometimes impossible at an earlier stage. In case of printable large-area electronics, — discussed as part of the nanoelectronics case study — and regenerative medicine — the second case study in this book — the value chains are incomplete. Additionally, there maybe social, ethical or institutional issues increasing the complexity.

Although planning innovations remains difficult and there is always the risk of hypes, well-expressed expectations can lead to a wise selection of technological options: We can call this dynamic process evolutionary but of course without the blind variation of options of the neo-Darwinian theory. Options are selected and shaped by the actors in the innovation process, increasing the success rate.

The relatively new paradigm of open innovation also reflects that the problems to solve, the products to design and produce and the development processes of innovative solutions are becoming more and more complex. No-one can cope on their own anymore. Various parties, big and small companies, universities, RTOs, NGOs and government, should cooperate as responsible partners mutually respecting their places in the value chain and stimulating each others strongholds.

Complex issues are characterized by an abundance of not entirely independent parameters, and we can only deal with these if we combine various disciplines. In fact, this is the main theme of this book: How to innovate by converging technologies?

In this book, the route of an innovation is mapped as a trajectory in a matrix with changing capabilities — technological or organisational — and linkages — between actors in value chains. With hindsight, organisations can learn from such patterns, and then use such insights to anticipate the future. Most are slow transition processes composed of many small, but fast and disruptive creative solutions, which are driven by visionary individuals with a deviating perception of our world. These creative minds are essential for any innovation process. The so-called European innovation paradox is not so much the result of a lack of translation of novelties into applications, but of the presence of a suffocating ambient for creative minds. Risk-taking is not a typically European habit, which is alarming since any creative process, wherever in the value chain, is breathtakingly risky!

‘Converging technologies’ is a label nowadays used to point at synergies between originally separate fields leading to revolutionary innovations. It is clear from the above that any complex issue can only be solved by converging technologies in an open innovation context. I am convinced that in 10 years time we will no longer use this term. It will be the standard in technological developments or, even better, the standard in societal transitions.

In this book, the mentioned patterns are simple and clear in the case study about nanoelectronics, less so in the case study about regenerative medicine. This reflects the different stages in the trajectories of the chosen topics. These differences do add to the educational power of the book. The case studies, together with the generic chapters on innovation and converging technologies, explain how the dynamic evolution processes work, describe the risks and factual failures in time and finally show the possible innovative outcome.

It teaches us not to shy away from planning, to open up to creative minds, not to believe that the prospected outcome is the sole solution, but to profit from the abundance of possibilities which pop up during the process, to adapt the planning at every dynamic crossover of a diversity of ’converging’ capabilities and to use communication skills in order to arrive at a future with an even better than expected outcome.

We hope that the book will help policy makers, technology managers and R&D specialists to interact in designing innovative schemes for cooperation in order to create value for society.

Last but not least, we hope you will enjoy reading this book.

The Hague, October 2006

Prof dr J.H.W. de Wit
Chairman of the steering committee Converging Technologies STT

Ir W. Draijer
Chairman STT

Management Summary

Recently, ‘converging technologies’ has become a fashionable label, pointing out emerging interactions between previously separate fields of research and technological development. Such shifts result in qualitatively new technological possibilities, with potentially revolutionary impacts. Whether or not the label converging technologies is used, there is definitely a shift going on in how different fields of technology interact. In the present shifts, nanotechnology plays an important role as an enabling technology, that, in combination with information technology, biotechnology and cognitive and neuroscience, can create major changes, for example in chips technology, drug delivery or implants (including electronic brain stimulation). Similar shifts occurred in the past, for instance in fields like materials science, mechatronics and information technology. These earlier examples illustrate that convergence is associated with changing innovation patterns, industry structures and broader developments in society.

In a recent series of high-level policy reports in the United States and Europe, the idea of converging technologies was adopted and associated with expected revolutionary improvements in human performance (US) or with a ‘next technology wave’ (EU). Critical commentators stress the possibility of undesirable outcomes. The result is a lot of hype and counter hype.

The STT project

This book is one result of the STT foresight project about converging technologies. Starting point for this study is that the label converging technologies does refer to important qualitative changes in technological development and that similar changes occurred before. Insight into the dynamics of such earlier changes can help to cut through the rhetoric and hype to some extent, so as to better understand what is actually happening in particular technological domains today. Converging technologies present a twofold challenge. The first challenge is for actors to better understand the complex dynamics of converging technologies. The second challenge is to use such insight into the dynamics to actively shape the developments.

The book discusses two particular domains, nanoelectronics and regenerative medicine, which were the subjects of two case studies. These case studies constitute the core of this book. The case study approach was chosen to base the analysis on concrete developments. By doing so, we have attempted to step back from the current dynamics of expectation and hype.

We have asked practitioners from academia, public research institutes and industrial companies for each of the two domains to reflect on developments, sharing and at the same time furthering their understanding. Additionally, to deepen the analysis we have used insights from studies of innovation and the dynamics of technological change. The results of this process are reflected in the chapters of this book, written by the participants of the study.


The results of the study are twofold. On the one hand, insight into the dynamics of converging technologies. On the other hand, clues as to what are conditions that allow converging technologies to develop to the benefit of society. Here, we highlight a selection of the results of the study, integrating the results of the case studies.


  • The dualpromise of converging technologies. Expectations about possible performance improvements or novel functionality (ambient intelligent information and communication systems, recovery or improvement — possibly at an early stage — of the ‘natural’ function of impaired tissue) are attributed to underlying actual technological developments that remain largely invisible (integrated multifunctional electronic devices and flexible interfaces, control of physiological processes underlying tissue development) but have their own dynamics. This dual-promise dynamics carries the risk of hype. Promises, as a way to articulate expectations, are necessary to start a process of agenda-setting, prioritization and resource mobilization. However, there is a risk of oversimplification, resulting in over-extended expectations and unrealistic requirements, and in the end in disappointment about otherwise promising technological options.
  • The result of an agenda-setting process is emerging path dependencies,i. e. difficulty to move away from the path because it is a stabilized pattern of interactions. The actual shape of such trajectories depends on the context. Trajectories in health, electronics, architecture, agriculture will differ as they are shaped by different factors. In order to anticipate on future path dependencies, and maybe even influence them, it is interesting to characterize the actual factors that shape these trajectories. Such factors include not only the technological developments but also sector-structural developments — such as reconfigurations of value chains — or broader societal developments — of for instance regulatory or normative frameworks.
  • Insight in such trajectories, both in technological developments and in the associated sector-structural developments, can be used to map the development path of a technology in time, both retrospectively and anticipatorily. Such maps can serve as a ‘roadmapping’ tool to articulate visions about future developments, to commit stakeholders and to define a course of (collective) action.


  • Broad, multidimensional and dedicated research programmes are needed to stimulate a creative tension between a realistic assessment of what is possible and a desirable future. Such programmes should not only pay attention to science and technology, but also take into account contextual social and economical issues including regulatory, economic, and ethical issues. Considering the open-ended character and complexity of the developments — where structured foresight is not a possibility — a way forward can only be found if the non-technological issues are addressed simultaneously with research and technological development, in a step-by-step learning process that includes all relevant actors.
  • At the start of a trajectory, a value chain starts to emerge and roadmapping becomes possible. Roadmapping is a tool to articulate a shared vision of the future in order to timely address a problem or to fulfil a market need. A good roadmap emphasises the commitment of all stakeholders. The coherence between various levels of abstraction, such as technology, product and marketing planning, are made explicit in the roadmapping process in order to steer the planning and decision-making. Aspects of scenario planning are taken up in this process, so that for instance relevant societal issues and sector-structural developments can be placed on a time scale and clearly specified future milestones can be defined. Then, backcasting to the present, a course of action can be defined. A roadmap is not a static plan: It should be regularly updated to incorporate new insight and adapt to changing circumstances.
  • Cooperation across the entire value chain is essential, for small and large companies alike. Realising that it is impossible to predict which products will be winners and when the associated volume markets will take off, well-organised R&D ecosystems are necessary that foster parallel emerging technology developments. Such ecosystems should enable cross-fertilisation in an open innovation atmosphere while protecting the intellectual property rights of the actors involved in a responsible manner. ‘Responsible partnering’ is an essential success factor in open innovation. Both internal and external communications are essential throughout the ecosystem to enable the actors to decide at the right time on the continuation of winner technologies and the discontinuation of less promising options. In the ideal ecosystem, very innovative R&D infrastructures are in close proximity to traditional production methodologies; this will stimulate the convergence of know-how from all domains and reduce the inevitable struggle of innovative concepts to become accepted in volume applications. Ideally, the R&D ecosystem will be a fusion of large and small industry, notably start-ups, together with universities and institutes. It requires a different way of thinking about cooperation, also between small firms and larger corporations.

Converging Technologies