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.
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.