Industry 4.0, IoT, 3D printing and more. Why some technologies diffuse so quickly and others don’t

Revised on 2 March 2018.

I receive questions daily about the Internet of Things, Industry 4.0, 3D printing and many other technologies and whether and how I think these technologies will disrupt manufacturing and education in particular and the world in general. These questions are not only from government officials, but also from businesspeople, friends and fellow geeks.

Let me briefly state that I don’t believe it is possible to spot a paradigm shift in the future or in the present. So I would be hesitant to predict whether or when all these big changes will happen. However, when we look back we can spot shifts. Technological change typically takes places slowly but surely, and then at a certain point there is a massive shift. The point I would like to make is that even the futurists have great problems predicting the direction of that sudden shift. We must also consider that technological paradigm shifts almost invariably do not work out the way they are predicted to do before they occur.

For the last few decades many major technological advancements have been heralded as game changers. The advances are often generalised as sweeping statements about large-scale change. However, in most cases, new advances take a long time penetrating our daily lives, if they ever get that far.

So let me rephrase the original question a little. Perhaps the question is more about figuring out which technologies are diffused quicker than others, and why. This is something that we can calculate to some degree using a short history and the current status quo of assessments of technologies that are being touted as near-term game changers.

Dissemination of technology or knowledge always consists of at least three elements. I will for now ignore the process of diffusion for the sake of brevity. There is a supply side, a demand side and some kind of institutional or social construct that enables and even multiplies the diffusion.

The supply side is often most optimistic about how their ideas are going to change the game. The demand side is often naive about how useful a new technology is in real terms. Many potential users simply wait and see. Then there are the institutional mechanisms that operate at local, national, regional and international levels. There are lots of tensions at this institutional level, because this is where a whole range of social technologies, formal and informal, have to emerge or change. Just think of how US-based software companies are constantly coming up against data privacy groups in Europe. I am sometimes grateful that the institutional level takes time to change. Changing institutions to enable knowledge dissemination often requires multiple knowledge domains, different management levels and social play-offs. Often changing institutional support to improve diffusion must also cater for integrating and synchronising many other simultaneous change processes that are not only technological. They could be about regulations, rights and creating new forms of organisation. Furthermore, physical technology does not always change things the way we expect. After all, innovation is a process of combination and recombination, both at the level of physical technologies and also at the level of social technologies.

There are typically a few constraints that frustrate the diffusion of new technologies broadly speaking. The first is the fixed costs of the technology itself. Fixed costs slow down supply (otherwise we would already have electric vehicle charging points throughout the country), and also slow down demand (I cannot afford a Tesla yet).

Suppliers like to think that their solutions will fix social mechanisms, but this is often the area where change is the slowest. Social technologies often take the longest time to evolve (for instance in developing standards and regulations for electric vehicles, charging points and recycling of batteries). By evolving, the technology itself often changes with respect to its use, meaning and value  – often beyond what the originators had in mind. Thus while individual users can quickly adopt a new technology or idea, formal institutions, regulations and supporting infrastructure often take longer to adapt to new ideas. This means that the supporting ecosystem that enables new ideas to be quickly diffused perhaps adds additional costs (perhaps massive infrastructure investment or learning is needed), or fails to reduce costs in the diffusion of ideas. This is where the second constraint comes in. It depends on how complex are the required social changes. I mentioned earlier that institutional diffusion must also integrate different complementary technologies. For instance, using a smartphone to make phone calls is easy (single technological paradigm). Using a smartphone to manage or monitor a part of a production line requires many complementary and concurrent capabilities and technologies. It may even require completely rethinking organisational structures, production lines and supplier networks. Simply put, if the new idea is very complicated to use (due to the many concurrent investments and capabilities that are needed), then the costs goes up in terms of education, regulation, infrastructure, coordination, specialisation, management and so on. Just think of what it would take for South Africa to adopt driverless electric vehicles …

Perhaps this also explains why individual companies (think hierarchies) tend to absorb technologies easier than societies or economic sectors. Inside a company management can overcome coordination failures much easier than within a sector or broader society. Meso institutions such as universities and technology transfer organisations are very important for overcoming these coordination costs, but they tend to change slower.

The complexity of technology and its demands on the meso organisation is important in my work. I help these organisations figure out how to navigate the complexity of new technology adaptation and diffusion. It requires an understanding of users, some understanding of technologies, but a lot of understanding of the process of change and organisation. I don’t think I would be able to do my work without my understanding of market failures, especially with regard to failures in the capturing, dissemination, absorption or valuing of knowledge.

There are lots of amazing technological ideas out there that have been tried, tested and measured and found to be effective. Many companies here in South Africa are already using these technologies. So supply and demand exists, and in many cases there are transactions. Yet many of our industries, enterprises, universities and policy makers don’t know how these technologies can save costs, improve efficiency or strengthen resilience. Nor do they know which ideas will stick or have the most impact. So there is a missing institutional capability that reduces the complexity of the technology. What is often missing are institutions that make the dissemination of new ideas easier and cheaper. It is often more the case that the users (and possibly suppliers) don’t know how much the full implementation or use of these ideas would cost, or what skills, complementarities or networks are needed to master new ideas. Many market-supporting social technologies (in the form of institutions and networks) are lacking. Somebody must reduce the search, evaluation and coordination costs. This is where the complexity lies. And neither do we want our institutions to try and implement every new technology – this is where social balance and a longer-term vision are required.

So now I can get back to trends such as the Internet of Things or digitisation of the manufacturing environment. Many manufacturers know about Computer Aided Design (CAD) simulation or even rapid prototyping. But how can we reduce their risk of trying 3D printing, or how can they add more sensors to their production facilities so that they can improve measurement and control? It is not just about the cost of using the technology once or twice. There are issues that are holding entrepreneurs back from simply rushing to an online store and hitting “buy now”. Where would they get the trained staff from? How would they train existing staff? How would they manage a new competency? What would it cost to certify or maintain? Where would they find new customers or suppliers, and what would it cost them to develop the complementary capability and optimally use the new technology? And most importantly, how do we reduce their risks of trying something in different combinations? These are the issues that a network of institutions must consider as they craft their technology extension and demonstration strategies.

For me there is a strong role for technology intermediaries to play in demonstrating, perhaps on a small scale, how new technologies can be integrated into existing workplaces. This means that technology intermediaries must be funded to host (and master) a wide range of complementary technologies, so that entrepreneurs can combine what they have in place with the capabilities of these technology intermediaries. Or that new entrepreneurs not burdened by sunk investments can use their agility to gain access to complementary technologies in order to create new markets. These institutions should not be measured by how many companies fully absorb new technologies (this could lead to perverse incentives), but perhaps by how many companies have tried, engaged with and been exposed to new ideas.

At the same time, policy makers should look at ways to introduce new technologies into developing countries beyond demonstration or technology extension. Some countries such as Germany or Singapore have also been purposefully supporting disruptive incumbent enterprises by supporting the uptake of new technologies. Sometimes you can demonstrate until you are blue in the face, but incumbents won’t change if they don’t have to, and small enterprises sometimes simply cannot build up the momentum to challenge the status quo.

I would like to end this blog by briefly summarising what I’ve been discussing. For me the question of how new technologies may affect our lives is too focused on the hardware  and the geeks who love it. Even though I admire the suppliers and developers of new technologies, and I really admire the sophisticated users who are constantly inducing the emergence of newer and greater technologies, I believe that the real change we need is in getting better at creating responsive institutions that lower the costs for suppliers and buyers to try new things. This is where we can overcome many of the costs that slow down the absorption or dissemination of new technologies.

 

Significance over scale when selecting sectors

When promoting territorial economic development from an innovation systems perspective it is important to find ways of increasing the use of knowledge and innovation in the region. However, in mainstream economic development there is a tendency to target the private sector based on scale. This means that practitioners look at quantitative measures such as jobs, numbers of enterprises, numbers of beneficiaries, etc. when deciding where to do analysis and focus support. This is common practice in value chain promotion, sub sector selection, etc. Many development programmes do this as well prioritizing scale measures such as jobs, women, rural individuals, etc.

From my experience of assisting development organisations to strengthen the economic resilience of regional economies (which means more innovation, more experiments, more diversity, increased use of knowledge, more collaboration between different technological domains), I have found that the scale argument is distracting and too focused on the beneficiaries (whatever is counted) and not focused enough on those indirect public or private agents that are significant and that enable a whole variety of economic activities to take place. With significant I mean that there could even be only one stakeholder or entry point (so the direct scale measure is low) but by addressing an issue it enables a whole variety of economic activities to take place.

Of course, scale is very important when a local politicians need votes. It is also important when you have limited budget and must try to achieve wide spread benefit. For this reason scale is very important for social programmes.

However, when local institutions are trying to strengthen the local innovation system, in other words improve the diversity technological capability of a region, then scale becomes a second priority. The first priority then becomes identifying economic activity that enables diversity or that reduces the costs for enterprises to innovate, use knowledge more productively should be targeted. The reason why this does not happen naturally is that these activities are often much harder to detect. To make it worse, “significance” could also be a matter of opinion (which means you have to actually speak to enterprises and their supporting institutions) while crunching data and making graphs often feel safer and appear to be more rigorous.

My argument is that in regions, the long term evolution and growth of the economy is based on supporting diversification and the creation of options. These options are combined and recombined by entrepreneurs to create new economic value in the region, and in so doing they create more options for others. By focusing exclusively on scale, economic actors and their networks increasingly behave in a homogeneous way. Innovation becomes harder, economic diversity is not really increased. I would go as far as saying that success becomes a trap, because once a recipe is proven it is also harder to change. As the different actors becomes more interdependent and synchronized the system becomes path dependent. Some systems thinkers refer to this phenomena as tightly coupled, meaning a failure in one area quickly spills over into other areas. This explains why whole regions goes into decline when key industries are in decline, the economic system in the region became too tightly coupled.

But I must contradict myself just briefly. When interventions are more generic in nature, meaning they address market failures that affect many different industries and economic activities, then scale is of course important.

The experienced development practitioners manage to develop portfolios where there are some activities that are about scale (for instance, targeting a large number of informal traders) and then some activities that are about significance (for instance ensuring that local conformity testing labs are accessible to local manufacturers).

The real challenge is to figure out what the emergent significant economic activities are that improves the technological capability in the region. New emergent ideas are undermined by market failures and often struggle to gain traction. Many new activities requires a certain minimum economic scale before it can be sustained, but this is a different kind of scale than when practitioners use scale of impact as a selection criteria. Many small but significant economic activities cannot grow if they do not receive public support in the form of promotion, awareness raising or perhaps some carefully designed funding support.

There are a wide range of market failures such as high coordination costs with other actors, high search cost, adverse selection, information asymmetry and public good failures that undermines emergence in local economies. It is exactly for this reason that public sector support at a territorial level (meaning sub national) must be sensitive to these market failures and how they undermine the emergence of new ideas that could be significant to others. The challenge is that often local stakeholders such as local governments have limited influence over public institutions in the region that are funded from other spheres of public administration.

Let me wrap up. My argument is that scale is often the wrong place to start when trying to improve the innovation system in a region. Yes, there are instances where scale is important. But my argument is that some things that could be significant, like the emergence of variety and new ideas often get lost when interventions are selected based on outreach. Furthermore, the focus on large scale impact draws the attention to symptoms of problems and not the the institutional or technological institutions that are supposed to address market failures and support the emergence of novelty.

I will stop writing now, Marcus always complains that my posts are too long!

Let me know if I should expand on the kinds of market failures that prevent local economies from becoming technologically more capable.

 

 

Four functions of innovation and technology management

Originally published in November, 2015, revised in March 2018

I would like to continue the “Instigating Innovation” series (see opening post herewhere to start and the post about culture here). The idea behind this series is that I explain innovation management concepts that can be used by both enterprises and technology transfer and industry support institutions.

To recapitulate: I believe that many industries are struggling to modernise because their supporting institutions use completely different frameworks to manage innovation (or perhaps the supporting institutions make their choices as randomly as enterprises do). One of the first concepts that a tech transfer institute or industry support organisation should transfer to enterprises is “how to manage innovation and technology”. Just because there is an engineer or an MBA/PhD in a company does not guarantee effective or creative management of innovation and technology.

Today I shall focus on the four broad functions that must be managed strategically in every enterprise and supporting institution. Even if someone in the organisation has the job title of Innovation Manager or Technology Manager, these functions should still be visible throughout the organisation. In other words, this is not somebody’s job, but it helps if somebody coordinates these activities.

The four functions agreed by most scholars and innovation experts can be summarised roughly as:

  1. Searching and scanning for new ideas and technologies, both within and beyond the organisation. This includes looking at technologies that could affect the clients of the organisation, and technologies that could disrupt markets and industries.
  2. Comparingselecting and imagining how different technologies could impact the organisation, its markets and its own innovation agenda.
  3. Next comes integrating or deploying the technology or innovation into the organisation. This includes adjusting processes and systems, scaling up implementation, and project managing the whole change process.
  4. The last step is often overlooked, but new technology and innovation often make new ideas, innovations and improvements possible. I call this last step exploiting the benefits of a new technology or idea. This could involve leveraging some of the additional benefits or features of a technology, perhaps by creating a new business unit focused on an adjacent market or particular offering.

When I visit institutions, organisations and companies, I always ask “who is thinking about change taking place beyond your industry or key technology?”. I cannot tell you how often I hear that “the CEO” or “the production manager” are on top of new developments and will be attending a tech fair next year. How can this huge responsibility fall on the shoulders of one or two people, who are at the same time biased towards the current strategy which favours justifying past (sunk) investments? Or if you ask “How did you choose between two technologies?”  you will be surprised how little time was spent considering new business opportunities, or how few companies asked for on-site demonstrations or samples from their preferred technology providers.

I will refrain from being too critical of technology transfer institutions and industry-supporting organisations, except to say that these organisations should be a prime example to industry of how to scan, evaluate, compare and integrate new ideas and technologies. We don’t just want to see the shiny machines and neat facilities, we want to understand how you arrived at your decisions, and how you made the best of your investments after implementing the change. Furthermore, industry wants to know what’s next, or what’s beyond their vision and how it may affect their industry.

To bring it all together, the technological upgrading of industries is plagued by many different market failures. These failures include the tendency NOT to invest due to high research costs, due to fears about making the wrong choices, or because so many decisions and changes must be made at the same time – this while the business continues, markets fluctuate, and technologies change faster and faster. Companies (and institutions) cannot afford just to kick start innovation management immediately before making a change (or when forced by external forces to make a decision). These functions must be managed strategically on a continuous basis, both at the level of top management and within the different functions of the organisation. Both companies and their supporting institutions need to manage innovation and technology, not only from an operational perspective (striving for continuous improvement, etc.) but also from a strategic point of view.

 

On market failures – perhaps you are too close

I am often involved in coaching and capacity building a different kinds of private sector development experts working in the developed and developing world. I am sometimes shocked when I realize that a practitioners or programme managers in the field involved in market development do not understand some of the basics of how markets work or how to address market failure. This is often made worse by the broad ideological blindness of the organizations that promote market development approaches. I state this based on my experience that when markets and its alternatives are properly explained to teams in organizations, many problems resolve themselves, largely because the way markets function and evolve are better understood. Don’t get me wrong, I love markets. They are amazing in that they can emerge almost anywhere but where we often seem to need them. But I am not blind to their limitations (like how unfairly they allocate gains), nor am I naive about what it takes to get market systems to work.

If you are trying to solve market failures by bringing suppliers and buyers of a particular good or service together you may be too close to the action to really make a difference in the medium to long term. Actually, you might be making it harder for markets to evolve, as trust that is weakened when something does not work as it should or as promised is not easily forgiven in the real world, making 2nd attempts very hard if not impossible. There are many reasons why I say this.

Firstly, a market failure is a symptom that something else is wrong. It could mean that knowledge about the product or service, or how or why it is used, is not available or costly. This could imply a deeper failure (knowledge related) that people do not understand the value, the impact or the modalities of the good or service, or how the good or service will affect them or what it might depend on. Or the supplier is not able to demonstrate or explain how a good or a service can be used, or that it will address a particular need.

Secondly, modern markets are tightly intertwined and interdependent on other markets and other forms of allocation beyond markets. For instance, the service for quality management advice needed by food producers is dependent on many other services, including management consulting, HR consulting and sufficient demand for companies that are for quality accredited. It may also depend on some technical expertise in the form of a service about the product itself and the regulations it must comply with. These different markets co-evolve and depend on each other. Furthermore, this quality management service is also shaped by domestic and international regulations, standards and norms. Lastly, this service may also be specific to a particular service or product type, so the potential impact of the service or particular good may be easier (or harder) to guess so that a potential buyers of the service can figure out if this money might be spent in a better way. Remember that spending money on the wrong thing (adverse selection) is also a market failure if this is caused by an inability to thoroughly evaluate the expected benefits of alternative choices.

Thirdly, most services and products traded in markets also depend on related or supporting networks and hierarchies. For instance, few market services or products used by businesses can be used if that business (a hierarchy) does not have a management capacity, or absorption capacity (to figure out how the product or service will impact the rest of the business) or a functional capacity (internal expertise to use the product/service optimally). Many first time users of products and service depends on social networks to evaluate alternatives.

Fourthly, many services are not provided only by the private sector, but also by public providers and not-for-profit organizations (and even via networks). The more generic the service, the more likely that it wont succeed as a private service (because business typically pays for additionality, generic solutions can often be developed in-house (via hierarchy). Many “business services” in developed countries are provided by private, public, not-for-profit (networks) or hybrid models. Multilateral development organizations often promote “commercial” business services even when in their own countries these services are also available as public or hybrid services. Often services are first provided by the public sector, and the complimented by the private sector as demand becomes more specialized. Or services are provided by the private sector, until the public sector realize that it is in fact a public good or service and that it should in fact be provided by the state. But often, in the long run, products and services provided in the public sector are also provided in the private sector, and vice versa. The order depends not only on the context, but also on the dependency and interdependency of the markets, as well as the costs and efficiency of the alternative means of provision.

Lastly, in the words of Mark Granovetter, markets are deeply embedded within a societal context. Markets are part of the society, it reveals what a society values, how much it trusts, and how much it values people keeping their promises. You cannot isolate a market from the context, optimize it and then insert it back in the society. The societal context provides the trust, the enforcement and even information flows that makes it possible for markets to work. Out of this society a whole range of institutions emerge, some in the form of organizations, others in the form of norms, habits and routines.

During training sessions on how markets work, practitioners are often surprised to find out that markets are only one way a society allocates goods. The other way is through networks (often not in exchange of currency), or through hierarchies (organizations that allocate resources internally). When markets are new, they often emerge first as networks. Over time a group of people that know each other socially formalize their transactions, and out of this markets emerge. This is why we often advise practitioners that when one form of allocation fails, the solution is often to stimulate the others. So when a market fails, first try networks or hierarchies.

We often use a case study to illustrate the point. A service provided in one country by the private sector as a commercial service, is provided in another country as a public service. In a third country, the service is provided by an association as a network good. Pairs of practitioners from different countries then assess the three cases and must make a recommendation. It is quite funny to see how people from different parts of the world disagree on what constitutes a commercial service (market transaction), what constitutes a public good (allocation via hierarchy) and when a network transaction is better.

On the point of designing markets. While it is true that some markets are designed, these designs are often carefully planned and regulated. Think of mobile phone spectrum or broadcasting rights. It is not so easy to design markets that needs many actors to cooperate and that depends on many other variables that you cannot control through regulations. Even if you could use regulations, you might have the problem of not being able to change something if you need to.

In the end, markets learn and adapt. Actors in markets experiment, they learn from each other, and they adapt. This takes time, much longer than the life of a development programme. Ask yourself, why does a market for cigarettes develop in a prison within hours, but a market for tomatoes can take years? We have to understand the preconditions and the evolution of markets much better if we want to assist the evolution of societies and their markets.

To solve market failures, we often have to move one level up to where societies turn broad and generic policies about the society into organizations or targeted interventions. This may still mean working with the people doing the transactions to learn from them, but often the solutions will lie in institutions, policies and eventually maybe in regulations and standards.

Entrepreneurs and markets

While most entrepreneurs depend on functioning and competitive markets to survive, there are those entrepreneurs that actually thrive in imperfect markets. These are the entrepreneurs that creates a business around something like an information failure, high costs of finding suppliers or customers (brokering), or overcoming economies of scale (for instance by leasing expensive equipment on a pay-per-use basis).  Their services or products are valuable to the societies that they create their businesses in, as they overcome barriers to entry and barriers to upgrading. However, there are long term consequences to an economy that is riddled with market failures especially when these failures become very profitable for some. But more about that later.

Anecdotal evidence would suggest that entrepreneurs that exploit market failures to create new markets often earn disproportionate returns. They take huge risks as governments could address the market imperfection if it had the will, the competence and the resources to do so. Once these entrepreneurs are established they often have near monopoly market dominance. Unequal income for me is not such a big problem (it basically tells me there are many systemic failures), rather unequal opportunities is a much bigger issue as it is more widespread. For instance, can the cycle of inter-generational poverty be broken in a society? Can a child from a poor rural location one day choose to become a lawyer, engineer, or teacher; or are they trapped with few options? Is the society creating opportunities only for a few entrepreneurs that have connections and that can protect their interests, or are we creating markets where many entrepreneurs can compete in?

In a European country, with layers and layers of competition and market policies, most entrepreneurs compete on a more-or-less even playing field with markets that are carefully designed, or regulated as they emerge. In Africa, many entrepreneurs are competing in markets where government actually introduce imperfections, largely because markets and competition is not trusted (it is called the Law of Unintended Consequences). The situation is also made worse in that our market regulating and shaping institutions are often not resourced sufficiently and over-run with both creating market systems and coping with ongoing change.

How to overcome this situation?

Industrial policy in developing countries cannot be driven only from the perspective of trade and industry, as many other departments (or policy areas) are introducing market failures into the system in for instance health, education, science and agriculture. These conflicting policies then creates market imperfections that if exploited by a few entrepreneurs will lead to huge profits and a firm market footing. Society may benefit in the short term from a particular solution being available, but in the long term society may be stuck with a market that very quickly develops its own interests that may not necessarily be in the interests of the wider society.

Furthermore, market institutions must recognize and identify the patterns that plays out repeatedly in a society, and try to address these. We should not celebrate when one entrepreneur jumps on an opportunity (although this is still better that nothing). We should celebrate when many entrepreneurs are crowded into a market. I don’t know whether it is naive to ask policy makers to also think about the unintended consequences of their decisions. This is the reason why we’ve had to delve into complexity theories to try and curb the damage being done by well-intended policies.

If we do not succeed in building the right market systems that are based on fair competition we will forever be creating opportunities just for a few entrepreneurs. In the meantime, we depend on a few entrepreneurs that combine intelligence about an opportunity with the right resources and the right competences.

Building institutions that supports knowledge flows to industry

It sounds like a cliche to state that manufacturing has changed a lot in the last 30 years. Yet people often say this without thinking of how it has changed. It is not just about the size of our manufacturers, or the increased competition from Asia or elsewhere. It is also not about the sophisticated equipment and the tremendous range of products that are now available to consumers. An important aspect of manufacturing change is the dependence on knowledge from internal and external experts, or Knowledge Intensive Business Services (KIBS). These knowledge experts include engineers, product developers, process experts, industry experts or logistical experts. While in a country like Germany, there are many public, academic and private specialists to go around and assist manufacturers to tweak their processes or solve specific problems, in developing countries we have a bigger challenge. Knowledge intensive services are prone to several market failures, and therefore it is important that we consider the role, importance and challenges that these knowledge services have.

Let me just state upfront that despite my PhD research focusing on the importance of knowledge services in the manufacturing sector, I am hesitant to treat the “knowledge economy” as something separate as it is often done in the South. The increasing importance of many different kinds of knowledge throughout the economy is pervasive. Just ask a commercial farmer in Africa how they have had to change their farming practices in the last 3 decades. It is almost unthinkable that 30 years ago a person could start commercial farming without a tertiary education or at least one highly experienced supervisor. The same goes for manufacturing.

There is a big difference between generic Business Development Services (BDS) and Knowledge Intensive Services. While with BDS our problem is to get good all-rounders to provide services to enterprises where it is very hard to determine the real value of the service offering, in Knowledge Intensive Services the service is very specific to a certain (technical) problem, it is deep knowledge and the value (and cost) is usually very clear. Firms that know what they are doing need knowledge intensive service providers to fill in the gaps where deep knowledge is needed, a BDS provider is typically out of their depth with a manufacturing enterprise that are trying to be competitive.

  • The first challenge we have with intensive or specific knowledge is scale. When just a few manufacturers use more advanced equipment in a country there is a good chance that few service providers, experts or technicians will be available. In market failure terms, this is called an indivisibility (you cant divide the cost of the expert easily between different enterprises, or just take a small piece of the expert). It could also be about scale (not enough business to justify the emergence of a specialized service provider). It is often difficult for manufacturers to coordinate their use of expert service providers, or to coordinate the procurement of similar equipment that makes the development of a pool of service providers possible. This is called a coordination failure and it is pervasive in our developing economies.
  • A second challenge is that many manufacturers are hesitant to search outside their firm. This is often due to costs (which includes the time spent to find the right expert), but also because for so long manufacturers had everything they needed in-house. In South Africa, many of our older firms are hesitant to use “consultants” because they don’t trust them. This could be described as a market failure around asymmetrical information or adverse selection.

One way to increase the availability of knowledge intensive service provision in a developing country is through the connection between academic institutions, public funded industry support programmes and industries themselves. This requires that technical or knowledge experts are able to be released from certain teaching or research duties to work with firms. This is often very difficult due to the high student load in many of our African universities. I am often astounded by the world class research capacity and expertise that are hidden inside universities that are desperately needed in industry. This failure has many names, but in market failure terms it is called a public goods failure, in other words, public funds are not used to overcome persistent market failures in industry.

A second and parallel strategy should be to make sure that the Meso level organizations (which include universities and higher education institutions) are concentrating on overcoming the market failures in industries and in firms. In developing countries these Meso organizations, meant to address specific performance issues at firm or industry level, are more focused on securing and spending national (or international) funding than to become valuable and responsive to the needs of industry. To get the Meso organizations focused on the plight of firms requires an industrial and modernization policy that is focused on building the right economic and industry supporting institutions – this cannot be done just by merely implementing projects or programmes – it must be systemic. With right I mean relevant and equipped with high level experts that understand and can relate to the issues in industry.

This phenomena of the disconnect between public knowledge services and the need of industry is more widespread than you would think in our developing countries. It is a public good failure that undermines the well being of our economies. I believe this is also an ideological failure, because governments tries to use their funds to provide incentives or prioritize certain kinds of behavior both in the public sector and in the private sector. Instead of responding to what is emerging or what is needed in the private sector, the public sector tries to prioritize what it believes to be ideal. The result is that the firms that are most able to create jobs and wealth are left without public support.

In Mesopartner we will be working on consolidating our experience in bottom up industrial policy. We will work closely with research organizations and development partners around the world to strengthen and develop a body of knowledge on how some of these issues can be addressed in the developing world. We do this by developing a theme where instruments, concepts, theories and practice can be integrated. If you are interested in participating in this process, or have experience to share, please give us a shout.

I have previously written about this some years ago in the post about the service sector  and about the increased importance of knowledge intensity here.

Book announcement: Understanding Market Failures in an Economic Development Context

This is the long awaited book on Market Failures. The cover page illustration of the hard copy is by Lina Stamer and is an image that I use when I present the popular training session on how to address market failure in a practical way.

The book is available for free as a E-book, or a paperback edition can be ordered here. More books are available on the Mesopartner online bookstore.

The official description of this publication is:

Many development practitioners are familiar with the phrase “market failure”. However, not many people relate to the topic in a practical sense. Many remember boring lectures in universities where market failures were presented as abstract theoretical concepts in economics 101. In this book, Dr. Shawn Cunningham takes a perspective that the clues to begin to address market failures are in the world around us. He argues that the characteristics attributed to each market failure by clever scholars actually provide some clues to development practitioners about ways in which to address the imperfections that hinders market based transactions. Shawn also argues that market failures cannot be addressed by business management principles, and that typical market research instruments will provide little information on how to make a market system where there is demand, supply and supporting institutions work better

Some market related reading

Thank you all for the comments and e-mails on my previous posting regarding markets. I promise to continue that thread in a few days time.

Here are some of my favourite books on markets!

To read more about market systems, their histories, and a broad overview of the topic, start with Reinventing the bazaar: a natural history of markets by John McMillan. Other authors that have helped to popularise the topic are Levitt and Dubner with their Freakonomics books, or Tim Harford with The Undercover Economist. For the more serious readers, take a look at John Kay’s Culture and prosperity: the truth about markets: why some nations are rich but most remain poor or Lindblom’s The market system: what it is, how it works, and what to make of it.

All of these and other books are available on our Amazon storefront!

Market failure or marketing failure, or just old ideas under new labels

I am often stunned at how development agencies and practitioners justify their interventions to support enterprises as “overcoming market failure”. To me it seems there is a huge misunderstanding of what a market failure is, and how one can intervene to overcome the under-performance of markets. Over the last 8 years I have done intensive research into market failures, so let me do some copying and pasting from my thesis (Cunningham, 2009). The sarcastic comments where of course added in today ;-). Sorry Anja and Lucho, this is not the summarised version yet.

Here is the theory part….

Although economists describe perfectly competitive markets, in the real world markets do not always perform perfectly or optimally. When markets do not perform in an optimal way economists refer to the situation as a “market failure”. The MacMillan Dictionary (1986) describes market failure as “The inability of a system of private markets to provide certain goods either at all or at the most desirable or ‘optimal’ level”. Reference is made to the allocation of resources not being at the desired or optimal level. Samuelson and Nordhaus (1992:741) define a market failure as “An imperfection in a price system that prevents an efficient allocation of resources”. In this definition reference is made to the importance of the price system being able to reflect the true costs and value of a product, with natural monopoly, imperfect competition, asymmetry of information and externalities cited as examples.

Market failures are often visible in the forms of the growth of monopolistic firms and other non-competitive organisations, and when factors of production stand idle or certain kinds of opportunities are not pursued by business. Markets also fail when externalities such as water and air pollution are not included in their costs by firms, so that they make private profit at the cost of society. Roberts and Boudreaux (2007) explain that when a market fails this is effectively caused by failures in the institutional arrangements that support the market.

What this means in practice

Thus addressing market failure is about getting markets to perform more efficiently or optimally in the way that resources are allocated or decisions made regarding the production of goods and services. While certain interventions will be aimed directly at the market, other interventions are needed at the institutional level, and only some will be aimed directly at enterprises.

So a quick test here would be for you to check how much time you are spending working with enterprises, and how much time on market systems and the supporting institutions (which could be organisations, but mostly means far more than this).

It takes time. Lots of it.

At this point it is important to realise that it takes demand and supply some time to find the right signals such as price. Unfortunately us development practitioners don’t like this part, but it can take a long time (sometimes a decade) for a market to figure out what the main drivers are (price, quality, value, etc). In a healthy market there is a range of product offerings at different prices targeting different customer profiles. These offerings may have very little relationship with the original products and firms that created the market in the first place.

So it takes time, that is why a market can be described as a dynamic system with feedback loops.

“But firms dont know what to produce or who to sell to – there is a market failure!”

This argument is held forward mainly by small enterprise development practitioners, although even academics in business schools sometimes argue that you can solve a market failure through better marketing.

It is important to distinguish between the economics concept of market failure, and the business management result of a marketing failure. In marketing management literature a marketing failure implies that a firm has made a poor judgement in its marketing strategy, or that marketers have failed to understand that marketing should not be seen as a functional discipline but as an integrative business process. When firms fail to capture a market share due to poor marketing strategies, this can be referred to as a marketing failure. The solution too marketing failure is not in economics or sociology, but in better business management.

The verdict

So how can a development practitioner claim to assist in overcoming market failure by assisting a firm to write a business plan, or by helping a firm to find a venture partner or a new customer? Or how can a university justify developing a product for a firm using state funds in order to overcome market failure.That is just bad development practice. Even if you could somehow justify these interventions on some sub-clause somehow related to a market failure, it remains highly un-systemic and the “failure” will persist.

Recycling old ideas under new labels

I suspect that despite huge international policy pressure for development programmes to address market failure, many practitioners are simply recycling their old tools like poverty alleviation and small enterprises development under new labels.

Perhaps it is best if  you just call what you are doing marketing and business management support, then at least you can refer to a whole pile of business management books.

PS.

Bear in mind there is a whole group of people that dispute that market failures even exist (I even agree with many of their arguments), as well as many groups that believe that markets are evil and should not exist (I agree that markets ARE NOT ALWAYS the best transaction mechanism). But let us leave something for another day.

References:

CUNNINGHAM, S. 2009. The role of market failure in the utilisation of Quality Management services by the tooling industry. Ph.D Thesis, North West University,

PEARCE, D.W. 1986.  Market Failure. In Macmillan dictionary of modern economics. Pearce, D.W. (Ed.).

ROBERTS, R. & BOUDREAUX, D. 2007.  Boudreaux on market failure, government failure and the economics of antitrust regulation. In Library of Economics and Liberty – EconTalk.  Liberty Fund, Inc., Indianapolis, IN. [Web]  http://www.econtalk.org//archives/2007/10/boudreaux_on_ma.html [Date of access: 2 February 2009].

SAMUELSON, P.A. & NORDHAUS, W.D. 1992.  Economics. 14th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Announcing a series of 1 day training events in South Africa

At last, what so many of you have asked for….

We will host three separate 1 day training events in Pretoria, focused on the following:

26 August 2010                 Facilitating the diagnosis and improvement of local and regional value chains

Event Brochure in PDF

28 September 2010           Diagnosing local and regional innovation systems

Event brochure in PDF

28 October 2010                Understanding and addressing market failures in local and regional economic development

Event brochure in PDF

The cost involves R 1,850 (200 Euro) excluding Vat per one day event (fee includes materials, coffee breaks and lunch).

To register for an event or the complete series, complete the registration form on page 2 of ‘mesopartner Africa Capacity Building Series’ and send to ac(at)mesopartner.com

I will try my best to make these events fun and interesting for you to participate in! Some pictures of previous events:

 

Prerequisites for markets to function