Series: Meso Institutions as enablers of Self-Discovery and learning

This is the first post in a series that will investigate the network of organisations that enables the economic agents in an economy to master new technology and to prosper.

In every economy, there are organisations that emerge to address all kinds of market, structural and organisational failures. We call these organisations Meso Organisations, and they perform meso functions aimed at improving the economic performance and prosperity of the micro-level. While some meso functions may be more about creating a regulatory framework and others about education or technological services, in essence, all meso functions are about disseminating knowledge between economic actors.

Diversity (or variety) of options is a prerequisite for evolution to work. In natural evolution, variety is created by random mutations in DNA, while variations in the economy are created through an ongoing process of self-discovery at different levels, involving different segments of the society (Hausmann and Rodrik, 2003). Rodrik (2000) states that this process can be called a meta-institution. He argues that if it is democratic and participatory, this kind of arrangement typically results in higher-quality growth. This discovery process draws heavily on the ability of groups of organised people in business, government and civil society to conduct a process of combining existing ideas with new ideas in novel designs. It involves both reflecting on the status quo, and imagining alternative arrangements. 

Nelson (2003:20) stresses that “some of our most difficult problems involve discovering, inventing and developing the social technologies needed to make new physical technologies effective”. The more distributed this kind of search is, the better the variety created and the stronger the resilience of the system becomes.

Businesses that are able to generate or recognise modules that work better and that can be repeated elsewhere by drawing on their past experiences have a huge advantage over businesses that are not able to do so (Dosi and Nelson, 2010; Beinhocker, 2006; Nelson and Winter, 1982). Schumpeter already argued some time ago that innovation consists of “the carrying out of new combinations”, with many of these combinations depending on past knowledge or understanding of physical, social or economic properties (Schumpeter, 1934:65-66). Dosi and Nelson (2010:103) argue that the ability of firms to learn, adapt and innovate is generally highly heterogeneous, idiosyncratic and unevenly spread.

Not all the knowledge needed to conduct ongoing discovery processes is available within a single individual or organisation. Hence social infrastructure, technology, education and business networks are essential in connecting organisations into broader networks of knowledge (Hidalgo, 2015). This is where the diversity, adaptability and resilience of the network of meso organisations and their functions play a critical role.

The factors within firms and beyond firms, including the landscape of meso organisations collectively describe the technological capability of an industry, country or a sub-national region. The dynamic of how these factors influence each other is the essence of the innovation system of a country, industry (sector) or a location. The innovation system is not so much about the presence of any given organisations, as their ability to network and cooperate in disseminating and adapting knowledge.

Now to connect this concept of technological capability back to the meso organisations. Meso organisations and their functions are critical in disseminating technological knowledge in a society, industry or a region. The process by which these organisations emerge and adjust is unique and depends on the context. I am genuinely intrigued by how these institutions emerge, adapt and change over time to form modern organisations that can respond to, anticipate and adjust to structural change and patterns of economic or innovative underperformance in the economy. 

 

Sources

BEINHOCKER, E.D. 2006.  The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

DOSI, G. and NELSON, R.R. 2010.  Technical change and industrial dynamics as evolutionary processes. In Handbook of the Economics of Innovation. Bronwyn, H.H. and Nathan, R. (Eds.), Amsterdam: North-Holland, pp. 51-127.

HAUSMANN, R. and RODRIK, D. 2003.  Economic development as self-discovery. Journal of Development Economics, Vol. 72(2) pp. 603-633.

HIDALGO, C.S.A. 2015.  Why Information Grows: the Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies. New York: Basic Books.

NELSON, R.R. 2003. Physical and Social Technologies and their Evolution. Piza, Italy: Laboratory of Economics and Management, Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies.

NELSON, R.R. and WINTER, S.G. 1982.  An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

RODRIK, D. 2000.  Institutions for high-quality growth: What they are and how to acquire them. Studies in Comparative International Development, Vol. 35(3) pp. 3-31.

SCHUMPETER, J. 1934.  The Theory of Economic Development. Harvard, MA: Harvard University Press.

 

Post 3: The role of various organizations involved in education

This is the 3rd post in the series on building technological capability.

Contrary to common belief, building technological capability does not start with eduction. That being said, education matters and certainly makes any upgrading effort much easier. It is not only about the basic qualifications, but also about the ease with which existing employees can further their education.

With education institutions we include all forms of education, from basic to technical, vocational to post tertiary education. We also include public as well as private providers of education. Education lays an important basis with regards to skills, but also increases the absorptive capacity of a society. Advanced forms of education includes research.

In general, when we assess the role of education in assisting enterprises or industries to upgrade, we want to know how responsive the education system (broadly speaking) is. If a new standard is agreed upon in industry, how long does it take for the technical Universities to include this in their programmes? If a new disruptive innovation takes place, how fast is the curriculum updated? I remember back in the 90s when I studied for the first time, how the software we used at the university was no longer available commercially. Fortunately, all those Lotus 1-2-3 shortcuts still worked on Excel, I still use it today 😉

While the responsiveness of the education sector is important, what is ideal is a education system that not only responds to the needs of the private sector, but it preempts or anticipates what is needed next. This is very important for the manufacturing sector. Graduates must know not only what is now mainstream, but also what is expected or coming soon. This is where large parts of our South African university system lags behind. But this is not unique to South Africa.

A last point I want to make about the education sector is that it is also important to understand the role and contribution of the private sector to the education sector. In many countries there is a close relationship between the private sector and for instance universities. Companies contribute to to not only basic education infrastructure, they often fund research positions and projects. An industry that is complaining that they don’t get from the education sector what they need is most likely also not contributing through finances or advice.

Connecting innovation systems with local and regional economies

Many of you have asked me how I connect my current focus on innovation systems and technological upgrading with industries with my past experiences of local and regional economic development. I thank you for repeatedly asking this question, and apologise for not providing you with an answer. The reason for my silence was that I was also not exactly sure how to connect these topics. But I think I am now starting to understand how these topics relate to each other.

Let me try to explain this.

Before I continue I need to make sure that you understand that an innovation system is far more than one or two innovative firms.  Freeman (1987:1) defined an innovation system as “the network of institutions in the public and private sectors whose activities and interactions initiate, import and diffuse new technologies.The emphasis is mainly on the dynamics, process and transformation of knowledge and learning into desired outputs within an adaptive and complex economic system.

So how does innovation systems work within regions or places? Well, it is often affected by issues such as trust, social and informal networks, formal relationships, common customers or common inputs and other factors. You will notice that it sounds very similar to the characteristics of a cluster in its early days. The main characteristic of a local or regional innovation system is that it is mainly focused on a specific geographic space and on the specific knowledge spill-overs that occur around certain firms, industries or institutions unique to that space.

You will immediately notice that innovation thus favours places with more people and more firms. You are right, a close relationship exist between density of interactions between people (provided for by towns and cities, nightlife, and frequent social exchanges) and the innovation system. It does not mean that innovations are limited to these spaces, but simply that they emerge faster or with more success in these spaces. This is largely caused by the increasing importance of knowledge exchange and interaction between firms, knowledge service providers and technological and educational infrastructure. But more about that in a seperate post.

I want to leave you with 3 questions that I have found to be useful to better understand the relationship between places and innovation systems. I use it frequently at the start of an assessment into an innovation system, or to stimulate thinking of public and private leadership.

1) Why are people innovating in this specific location (and not on another space)?

2) How does this space or place support innovation, and more specifically, how does it reduce the costs of innovation?

3) How do innovations in firms affect this space?

Bear in mind that with innovation I mean product, process as well as organisational or business model innovations.

Ask these questions and let me know what you find. I am sure that you will find that many places do not actively support innovation (unless you have some really determined or stubborn innovators there). Nor do they make it cheaper for people to innovate, exchange knowledge or stimulate joint problem solving (or opportunity exploitation). To me it also seems increasingly obvious that the role of cities and towns in Africa are not fully exploited in national economic development as spaces for innovation.

In South Africa, innovation happens mainly in 9 major and about a dozen secondary urban spaces. No amount of public policy will break this pattern until settlement patterns change, or until smaller places start to attract skilled people that can afford to innovate from cities.

So how can we support innovation systems in each and every town? How can we built regional and local institutions that reduce the cost and risk of innovation. Again, I dont mean only product development as an innovation. I mean process and business model innovation as well.

Until we can build our own local technological and educational institutions using local priorities and local resources from the bottom up the trend of urbanisation and migration to the major centres will continue. This is great in terms of reducing the costs of innovation, but it makes us very dependent on national policy, and only a few good local administrations. I would prefer a situation where we can build our local institutions around local issues, this giving firms in for example a mining region a head start in innovating around problems or opportunities related to mining.  For instance, in the Mpumalanga  province (South Africa) we have a lot of coal mining with its associated problems. Why is it so difficult to create a small but focused research institute or technological institute in a town that will focus on applied research and knowledge generation around environmental technology related to coal mining? Could this not be an impulse with environmental solutions as well as innovation as outcomes? I could imagine that such an institute could create positive externalities in a space that would lead to innovation that our both cutting edge and relevant to our society.

Now if you think about it, then Africa is rich with millions of ideas (also known as opportunities, challenges and obstacles) that could serve as impulses to create, stimulate or grow local innovation systems around relevant issues. Dont get me wrong, I dont mean that the public sector must do the research, and then the private sector must commercialise the research (although a little of this certainly helps). I mean that public funds or public private partnerships could be used to establish local institutions that create positive advantages for firms to innovate within regions through reducing the costs of finding relevant information (about a problem, opportunity or technology) and by highligthing opportunities for application of new ideas (by better articulating demand or applications). But there must be sufficient scale of infrastructure to allow the people with the right knowledge, experience and perhaps financial resources to settle in the region to exploit (or address) the opportunities through innovation.

Let me know what you find when you ask these questions.

PS. I know I will receive hundreds of angry e-mails that I am implying that rural areas are doomed.  Re-read my post before hitting ‘send’.