Digital innovation: obstacles and possible adoptions


The process industry is an important part of the Dutch economy. However, due to its current challenges in sustainability and efficiency, the sector must adopt to new systems, that are much smarter and interactive than they are today. Current trends and developments in the digital world offer us endless opportunities. Yet, there is a need for more knowledge about how these potentially energy-efficient digital technologies are spreading through industry and how to make the best possible use out of digitalisation.

Therefore, researcher Nikhil John from the Utrecht University’s Copernicus Institute took a close look at this system and examined how digital technologies evolve from the concept phase to the end user. Besides, the researchers mapped which obstacles stand between further implementation of digitization in the process industry. 

Obstacles for digital transformation  

PhD candidate Ir. Nikhil John of the Copernicus Institute searched for relevant digital technologies for the process industry during the research. He discovered that especially asset management analysis, energy management analysis, advanced process control systems, preventive maintenance and digital twins offer opportunities. However, the researcher has formulated 9 socio-technical barriers that can arise in the different adoption stages of innovations. According to him, it is crucial to take these obstacles into account: 

  1. Differences in incentives between teams and management; 
  2. Decision-making around bottom-up digital innovations; 
  3. The use of advanced innovation in the workplace; 
  4. Concerns of IT teams and a more general fear of algorithms; 
  5. Missing digital infrastructure; 
  6. Job-rotation and the departure of innovation champions; 
  7. Skills-related challenges; 
  8. Scale-related challenges; 
  9. Partnership-related challenges. 

The main obstacles stem from the challenges created by teams and hierarchies. Departments dealing with digital innovation often have clashing interests, John argues. Besides, the base structure of the organization needs to be solid. “For example, it is important for companies to have a good digital infrastructure in order to get the most out of technological innovations,” the researcher said. By having the obstacles listed, it becomes possible for organizations to identify by technology, by site, by company or by sector at which stage of digital transformation they have arrived,” Frans van den Akker, digitalisation program manager at TKI E&I adds.  

Faster TRL’s 

Another key research outcome is that the digital innovation system is structured differently from typical process industry innovation systems. John indicates that digital innovations move much faster through the Technology Readiness Levels (TRL). Van den Akker adds, “Developing new process technology is often a lengthy process that, through fundamental and applied research, prototypes and pilots, eventually leads to initial implementation. This is a completely different approach than the Agile way of working in which people are used to arriving at a final product via smaller steps.” 

“It has also become clear that new digital skills are needed among end users to gain insight into which digital technologies can contribute to the transition of the industry,” Frans van den Akker said. 

Adoption model for implementation of digital innovation 

For implementing digital innovation, the researchers recommend an adoption model with 5 stages. These describe how digital innovation emerges as a concept, develops and eventually reaches the workplace. By identifying the phase of the innovation, it is possible for policy and practitioners to better guide planning and implementation. The adoption model looks like this: 

Phase 1: Introduction 
Phase 2: Persuasion 
Phase 3: Decision-making 
Phase 4: Implementation 
Phase 5: Confirmation/continuation 

At the moment, digital innovation is mostly used for efficiency improvements in existing processes. Yet, it holds the potential to have long term impact in achieving the sustainability goals of the process industry by vowing for radical innovation. Because innovation goes beyond technology: the individuals involved are not only end-users, but they are also co-designers of digital solutions. 


Our Digitalisation program aims to accelerate the concept of the fourth industrial revolution (Industry 4.0) where digitalisation, automation and data exchange is used to optimize manufacturing technologies. Together with the industry, we work on projects considering current technological advances in artificial intelligence, communication, connectivity, computing and sensors.