Regional and Technology Innovation Systems, Institutions, Geography

The process of technology research and development takes place within so-called innovation systems (cf. Freeman 1987; Lundvall 1992; Carlsson and Stankiewicz 1991; Malerba 1999). In such an innovation system, a dynamic network of agents interactively develops technological knowledge bases, hereby guided by existing institutions and organizations as well as industrial & scientific knowledge. An innovation system provides (1) functions immediately pertaining to technology development activities, (public) R&D activities, and scientific or technical services, as well as (2) supporting system functions like diffusion of information, intellectual property protection, coordination of activities, guidance of search, and formation of the market (Galli and Teubal 1997; Hekkert et al. 2007).

Clearly, in the pre-breakthrough invention stage, there is no industry worth mentioning and innovation systems for the specific technology being invented are yet underdeveloped. Over time, innovation systems (1) are actively shaped by an evolving population of actors, (2) are geographically constrained yet (possibly) link up organizationally with other innovation systems, and (3) have a certain lifecycle featuring contemporary elements. In general, governments, firms, industry conglomerates, and social groups actively shape particular elements of the innovation system (like e.g. the institutional framework, knowledge infrastructure). In this, government is a specific type of actor and is discussed in great detail in the next subsection. The innovation system perspective has already been applied to analyze regional aerospace industry, e.g. to analyze the role of a major regional firm as “anchor” (Niosi and Zhegu 2010) and the evolution of aerospace industry in latecomer regions (Vertesy and Szirmai 2010).

The geographical dimension of innovation systems is prominent in the national and regional innovation system literature, which attributes competitiveness and innovativeness of a region to particular features of the region (cf. Cooke 2001). Conducive to the innovative capabilities of a region are, for instance, (1) locally available skills, (2) access to venture capital for promising technology, (3) a corporate climate in which startups are welcomed and entrepreneurial aspirations are stimulated, and (4) presence of open innovation networks with (in)formal alliances (see e.g. Saxenian 1994; Cooke 1992). Generally, however, radically new technology comes about by (1) combining knowledge bases that are—to a certain degree—dissimilar (Nooteboom et al. 2007) and (2) using and applying technology available in existing, yet alien industries. Such ‘fresh’ knowledge may come from other regions and be brought in through ‘pipelines’ over long distances (particularly codified knowledge), subsequently absorbed, combined, and applied in a ‘buzz’ among local actors (Bathelt et al. 2004). However, the characteristics of the regional innovation systems affect the ability to acquire, use, and develop technology (and hence stimulate economic growth). There are no a priori reasons to assume that the concept of innovation system would not apply to the aerospace sector of the nineteenth century, although e.g. the forms of institutions such as ‘salons’ and ‘societies’ are of course contemporary. However, admittedly, in the invention stage, the role of companies and existing institutes may well be limited, while the role of individual inventors and entrepreneurs (and the relationships between them) is significant.

In many industries (e.g. automobile, shipbuilding, and aerospace industry), the geographical locus of technology development has shifted over time. A comprehensive process model of invention should thus feature learning of efforts of others located elsewhere and conducted in different eras, establishing knowledge flows, translating, and combining their insights and technical solutions. Moreover, the process model should also feature the role of the local innovation system and the government. Methodologically, using this process model of invention cum geography, institutions, and governance for case studies starts from the prevailing technological configuration and decomposition of the aerospace technology at hand, discussing inventive activities per technological component, and pinpointing the role of inventors’ knowledge and capabilities as well as the flows and recombination of knowledge over geographical and organizational distance. Moreover, it requires discussing the government interventions as well as the characteristics of the regional and technological innovation system in place and how these have affected each of the above.

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