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Addressing persistent market failure Private Sector Development Promoting Innovation Systems Thinking out loud

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.