Photo courtesy of Glenn Carstens-Peters.

What does an academic study from 1943, on the diffusion of adoption of hybrid seeds by farmers in Iowa, tell us about harvesting energy efficiency in 2019?

The sizzle of self-driving cars and artificial intelligence is a striking context for considering the groundbreaking hybrid seed technology developed by Iowa State University nearly 100 years ago. Studying the diffusion of these seeds over time across farms in the state can tell us a good bit about why some buildings are still controlled by pneumatics from the 1960s, or lights from the 1990s–and how to harvest energy in these buildings today.

Communication is critical path

“The farm community as a social system, including the networks linking the individual farmers within it, was a crucial element in the diffusion process.” – E. Rogers

Everett Rogers, professor and author of “Diffusion of Innovations”, defines diffusion as the process by which an innovation is communicated through channels, over time, among members of a social system. And he coined the term “early adopter.”

Rogers points to data from 259 farmers, interviewed in 1941, revealing that interpersonal communication played a major role in the progressive adoption of hybrid seeds. For these farmers, the process had taken 13 years, and when plotted on a year-by-year chart, the adoption rate formed an S-shaped curve.

It took between five and eight years for the planting of hybrid seeds to really take off, when adoption jumped from just the first 10% of farmers, who used the seeds in the first five years, to over 40%. The planting rate then leveled off. Hybrid seeds can yield roughly 20% more than open-pollinated seeds, are easier to harvest, and are more resistant to drought. And yet most farmers waited more than half a decade to plant their first hybrid row.

One key factor is communication, which, for these farmers, played different roles at different times. Early adopter farmers were first introduced to hybrid seeds by a salesman, while the majority of farmers, who adopted the seeds later on, cited neighbors as the most persuasive. When enough positive experiences were accumulated by the early adopter farmers, and those insights were exchanged with their neighbors in the community, the rate of planting jumped.

Like these farmers in Iowa, buildings can boost the adoption of energy efficiency technology by sharing lessons learned within their organizations and with peers.

Bundling can be a pollinating tailwind

“Two or more innovations are often packaged together to facilitate their diffusion because they have a functional interrelatedness…” – E. Rogers

What are the boundaries of a singular technological innovation? It can be difficult determining where one stops and another begins, but understanding how a technology relates or affects another can lead to faster, broader adoption of the entire “technology cluster.”

Green Revolution technologies, such as the miracle rice and wheat that triple crop yields, were more quickly adopted by farmers when packaged with three other innovations; denser planting rows, chemical fertilizer, and pesticides. There are plenty of other examples–email and personal computers, horses and saddles, etc.

Buildings, like farmers in India during the Green Revolution, can boost efficiency by considering clustered innovation packages. For example, an LED retrofit with cost-recovery financing aligns interests, and when paired with Measurement & Verification analytics, the building can receive new payments for the harvested energy efficiency in a pay-for-performance utility transaction, increasing ROI.

Reinvention sustains, trialability reassures

“The trialability of an innovation, as perceived by the members of a social system, is positively related to its rate of adoption.” – E. Rogers

While some innovations aren’t conducive to trials, piloting a new technology has been shown to dispel uncertainty (in Iowa, early adopter farmers would first plant the hybrid seeds on one or two of their acres for a few harvests). Customizing the trial to fit local conditions is also helpful.

And it wasn’t until the 1970s that diffusion scholars began to understand that it’s possible for an innovation to change during the course of its adoption. While hybrid seeds themselves don’t change, the ways in which they are planted can be modified, as in varying the degrees of row density. Diffusion scholars have since determined that many adopters actively customize the innovation in question to fit their unique situation, leading to both faster overall rates of adoption and persistent use.

Instead of an acre or two at the farm, the straightforward analogy here for owners & operators is to select a building or two for pilots. Many portfolios take this approach, and Kilroy Realty has formalized it into their Innovation Lab. And Gridium is always keen to discuss feedback.

The human element makes this hard

“Diffusion is fundamentally a social process.” – E. Rogers

It took the British navy 197 years, from the time its first captain identified citrus as a treatment, to eradicate the deadly disease of scurvy on all of its ships. Xerox corporate failed to adopt four out of the five stunning technology breakthroughs created at its R&D lab, Xerox PARC. And when a city-wide ordinance prohibiting smoking in public places was framed as an individual-rights issue, in 2002 in Alamagordo New Mexico, it failed to pass. The same ordinance passed when framed as a public-health issue Las Cruces, New Mexico, seven years earlier.

There is no add-to-cart button for meaningful change to a building’s operations, and that is ok. Gridium is here to help!


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About Millen Paschich

Millen has been thinking about the built environment since he was four, when he started with site walks on residential construction projects. He began his career at Cambridge Associates and has an MBA from UCLA. Talk to him about bicycling, buildings, businesses, and green chile burritos!

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