Por Mauro Rebelo

Learning from TRL: how the Gaussian curve can help understand technological development

DALL%C2%B7E 2023 01 15 08.52.32 a linear progression compared with a gaussian bell curve painted by picasso
Gaussian bell-shaped curves are the best representation of the stages of technological development on the TRL scale

The Technology Readiness Level (TRL) is a scale created by NASA in 1974 to measure the degree of maturity of a technology, from the ideation phase to its implementation in the market. This scale is widely used in research and development projects, as it makes it possible to assess the stage a technology has reached and identify the challenges that need to be overcome before it can be commercialized.

The TRL scale is divided into nine levels, with the first three (TRL 1 to 3) corresponding to the basic research phase, the next three (TRL 4 to 6) to the experimental development phase and the last three (TRL 7 to 9) to the demonstration and implementation phase. Each level has specific criteria that need to be met in order for the technology to advance to the next level.

According to Williams and Paré (2018) in the article “A review of technology readiness levels: Origins, evolution, and future directions”, the TRL scale “is widely accepted as a reliable way of measuring the maturity of a technology and guiding its development, and has been used successfully in various sectors, including defense, health, energy, aeronautics and space.”

The scale is very, very useful for assessing and communicating technological development, but it’s important to note that innovation is rarely linear. According to Rogers’ Theory of Innovation, there is a period of time in which development is slow and without major advances, followed by a short period in which the technology reaches a peak of development and, finally, another period in which the advance is incremental.

The Gaussian curve is probably a better way of illustrating the cyclical nature of technological development.

This is because innovation is an uncertain process, full of inconsistencies and highly subject to the influence of external factors such as regulatory changes, scientific advances and changes in the market.

If we were to illustrate progress on the TRL scale, it would look more like a spiral than a straight line, with the inevitable setbacks of technological development. But a spiral containing Gauss curves.

The boundaries between the technological levels of the scale are also not so well defined: one begins where the other ends. During the creative process, we move back and forth, evaluating the impact that a decision made today may have in the future, or anticipating an activity at a later level of the scale that has a long duration and we want to minimize the risk of it impacting some action in the future. Thus, the Gauss curves overlap.

DALL%C2%B7E 2023 01 15 08.56.19 a linear progression compared with a gaussian bell curve painted by picasso with curves overlaping

It takes patience and perseverance to overcome obstacles and achieve success. It is also important to constantly evaluate progress and make adjustments to the work plan if necessary. And that’s why we use agile methodology in the execution process.

The Gaussian curve may not be applicable to established technologies, which tend to evolve in a more linear and predictable way.

For this reason, it is necessary to assess on a case-by-case basis whether the Gaussian curve is the best representation for the development of a given technology.

It is important that development teams and the people who commission and contract innovation are prepared to face these challenges and are flexible in their strategies.