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Understanding resistance to innovation

Cécile Chamaret
Cécile Chamaret
Professor in Marketing and Consumer Behaviour at Ecole Polytechnique (IP Paris)

Media out­lets often report that French peo­ple are opposed to inno­va­tion. Recent exam­ples include fig­ures show­ing that only a small num­ber of peo­ple are will­ing to get vac­ci­nat­ed against Covid-19 or the con­tro­ver­sy around 5G net­works. But these atti­tudes are hard­ly sur­pris­ing when we look at research into resis­tance to innovation.

There are many exam­ples of prod­uct or ser­vice inno­va­tions that set off very strong resis­tance among poten­tial users. One inter­est­ing illus­tra­tion is the Linky smart elec­tric­i­ty meters that are being rolled out in France since last year. It’s not just house­holds that are wary of them, but also – and more sur­pris­ing­ly – local coun­cils, which usu­al­ly act as inter­me­di­aries to facil­i­tate the roll-out of inno­va­tions. Groups have formed to fight against and pre­vent these new meters from being imple­ment­ed across the coun­try. Mem­bers of this move­ment organ­ise protests, share tips on how to reject the instal­la­tion of a new meter, or restrict access to technicians.

These new-gen­er­a­tion meters show hour-by-hour con­sump­tion, allow remote oper­a­tions, and are pro­vid­ed for free. So, what explains this (some­times vio­lent) resis­tance, when the Linky meters per­form bet­ter in every way? Our research aims to under­stand the sources of resis­tance and how it’s expressed through local coun­cils – more than 1,000 have issued decrees against the new smart meters 1.

A per­son may not have adopt­ed a prod­uct sim­ply because they were unaware of its exis­tence or characteristics.

Birth of resistance

Resis­tance goes beyond refus­ing to embrace inno­va­tion. A per­son may not adopt a prod­uct sim­ply because they don’t know it exists or what its fea­tures are. As such, some­times sim­ply try­ing out a new prod­uct can lead to users adopt­ing it.

The notion of “resis­tance to inno­va­tion” implies a con­scious deci­sion. Here, the per­son is mak­ing the choice not to adopt a new prod­uct or ser­vice. This resis­tance is grad­ual and can man­i­fest itself in a wait-and-see atti­tude where the per­son holds out for bet­ter terms and con­di­tions. This is the case when the con­sumer finds an inno­va­tion inter­est­ing but would rather wait for it to become wide­spread and adopt­ed by many before using it themselves.

In con­trast, resis­tance can be very vio­lent when the goal is to make an inno­va­tion flop. This phe­nom­e­non has a vari­ety of ori­gins, but there is a cer­tain cor­re­la­tion between the source and the inten­si­ty of the resis­tance. Resis­tance can come from iner­tia, for instance, the con­sumer feel­ing com­fort­able with their habits, dis­in­ter­est­ed in adopt­ing new prod­ucts or meth­ods. Worse still, the con­sumer might see an inno­va­tion as over­ly com­plex in some way, or sim­ply have a neg­a­tive image of it.

Anoth­er pos­si­ble source of resis­tance can be traced to the dis­rup­tion of norms or tra­di­tions through inno­va­tion, e.g. genet­i­cal­ly-mod­i­fied pro­duce, which rais­es ques­tions about whether manip­u­lat­ing DNA is a social­ly accept­able prac­tice. Last­ly, the con­sumer may per­ceive cer­tain risks in adopt­ing the inno­va­tion. There are mul­ti­ple kinds of risks – risk to phys­i­cal safe­ty, eco­nom­ic risk (“If I spend the mon­ey on this prod­uct, will it be worth it? What are the poten­tial hid­den costs?”), func­tion­al risk (“Will the prod­uct real­ly per­form like it’s meant to?”) and social risk (“Will the peo­ple I hold dear see this inno­va­tion as a pos­i­tive thing?”).

As not­ed by Klei­j­nen et al. (2009), inno­va­tion that dis­rupts tra­di­tions and norms, when like­ly to involve phys­i­cal risk for con­sumers, is the most like­ly to encounter very strong, cult-like resis­tance 2.

Linky: sources of resistance

To find the sources of resis­tance to the Linky meters, we analysed around 500 local coun­cil reports and decrees enact­ed across France to delay or pre­vent them from being rolled out. Our results showed that, in addi­tion to believ­ing that meters didn’t improve things in any way, agents of resis­tance saw them as a source of a wide range of risks.

Our clus­ter analy­sis shows five kinds of coun­cils who each had very dif­fer­ent rea­sons for reject­ing, or at least delay­ing, the roll-out in their munic­i­pal­i­ty. Their argu­ments relat­ed to the tech­ni­cal fea­tures (lifes­pan, elec­tro­mag­net­ic waves) but also to the risks con­nect­ed to a dis­put­ed roll-out. This debate gave rise to forms of resis­tance that ranged from a mora­to­ri­um to a full ban. Some coun­cils focused on envi­ron­men­tal argu­ments relat­ing to replac­ing mil­lions of meters with ones for which the lifes­pan is poten­tial­ly three times short­er. Some high­light­ed the per­ceived risks due to fire, elec­tro­mag­net­ic waves or data breach. Oth­ers empha­sised risks of dis­tur­bance because some house­holds would not accept the roll-out. Oth­ers argued that replac­ing the meters should be the remit of coun­cils them­selves; or they brought up all these argu­ments and insist­ed that the new meters pro­vide no ben­e­fit to the end user.

The most pro­nounced forms of resis­tance came from coun­cils that invoked own­er­ship of the meters, and there­by banned the roll-out in their ter­ri­to­ry by munic­i­pal decree. This is just one exam­ple of how research into any inno­va­tion must include an in-depth analy­sis of con­sumer per­cep­tion and behav­iour. Oth­er­wise, there’s a risk of encoun­ter­ing a very high lev­el of resis­tance, no mat­ter the lev­el of tech­no­log­i­cal prowess pre­sent­ed by their innovation.

1Chamaret, C., Stey­er, V., & May­er, J. C. (2020). “Hands Off My Meter!” – When Munic­i­pal­i­ties Resist Smart Meters: Link­ing Argu­ments and Degrees of Resis­tance. Ener­gy Pol­i­cy, 144, 111556
2Klei­j­nen, M., Lee, N., & Wet­zels, M. (2009). An Explo­ration of Con­sumer Resis­tance to Inno­va­tion and its Antecedents. Jour­nal of Eco­nom­ic Psy­chol­o­gy, 30(3), 344–357


Cécile Chamaret

Cécile Chamaret

Professor in Marketing and Consumer Behaviour at Ecole Polytechnique (IP Paris)

Cécile Chamaret is a Professor in marketing and consumer behaviour at the Management Research Centre of the Interdisciplinary Institute of Innovation (I³-CRG*) at École Polytechnique (IP Paris). Her research focuses in particular on consumer behaviour and more specifically on resistance to innovation. She is currently working on new consumer behaviours such as minimalism and sobriety. She was previously a lecturer-researcher at the Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi where she developed an expertise in local consumption behaviours.
*I³-CRG: a joint research unit of CNRS, École Polytechnique - Institut Polytechnique de Paris, Télécom Paris, Mines ParisTech

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