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Measuring the Complexity of Local Knowledge

A Triple Helix 5 Workshop Proposed by:

Fiorenza Belussi, Department of Economics and Business of Padua University

Lucio Biggero, LUISS University of Rome and Aquila University

By the standard theory, knowledge is typically regarded as a free good, available at nearly zero costs to all economic agents. Rational agents always possess the needed information that enables them to pursue the best guided strategy: thus, profit maximisation. However, a large and significant part of advanced economic theory rejects the idea of conceptualising knowledge as a public good. At the extreme pole we find the theorist of technical change, for whom technical knowledge, once it is produced by the private firm system, is generally protected (through the patent system) for a significant length of time and exclusively owned by a proprietary agent. Thus, the idea that technological knowledge contains a certain degree of tacitness is quite widely acknowledged. Technological knowledge involves various degrees of complexity, specificity, cumulativeness, and appropriability. In contrast with the traditional view, it is important to stress here that there are at least three regimes of knowledge production and use: a public regime (no appropriability), a private regime (high level of protection), and a “local regime”, where spillovers occur and where knowledge is shared by the group members (knowledge as a “club good “). It appears important, therefore, the effort to dedicate a specific analysis to these intermediate or “local” forms of development, use, and transfer of knowledge (districts or clusters, networks, and communities of practices, etc).

Within specific organisations, i.e., firms, knowledge is always “local”. The creation of new pieces of useful knowledge in firms, related to the innovation process, requires a great deal of endogenous expertise (tacit knowledge embedded in skills) and exogenous sources to be included (access to databases, market information, pipelines, etc.). Local knowledge, different from what has been discussed by the Nonaka school, can not be represented simply as a process of codification of tacit knowledge, but it relates to the bounded interpretive and cognitive scheme embedded in the organisations. Patterns of problem recognition and ontological libraries defines what is “known” and routinised in procedures, products and processes. The knowledge trajectory of firms, thus, is not just determined by the stock of knowledge possessed (and measured in a “crude” form by simple indicators like R&D or patents), but by the existing processes of exploring the technological space, and connecting different types of knowledge, sources, and experimental traces. The accumulation of knowledge is not linear but combinatorial. At local level, in fact, the triple helix mechanism explains how different combinations of knowledge are organised within the relationships of local firms, public research institutions and specialised centres e, and coordinative local policies.

Dasgupta and David (1984/1987), in a not very much quoted paper, recognised the existence of different kinds of knowledge in the economic environment: scientific knowledge and technological knowledge. They contrasted the scientist’s desire to disclose and disseminate scientific findings with the typical technologist’s behaviour of treating technological knowledge as a secret under the pressure of extracting economic rents. Technological knowledge tends to be partially localised, thus it is rather “sticky” and embedded in organisations. However, tacit knowledge is attached to the scientific modus operandi and has a pivotal role in (new) knowledge generation in science and high-tech sectors. Scientific institutions contribute to the technological evolution of private firms providing siklls; this seems just as important for the development of technology in firms as knowledge created in public R&D institutions. We are now facing an interesting dilemma: science tend to be open but is nurtured by the embodied tacit knowledge of scientists and researchers that operate both at local and global level; technology is mainly sticky in firms but multinational firms tend to diffuse it.

Triple Helix Conference I Amsterdam, 1996 II New York, 1998 III Rio de Janeiro, 2000 IV Copenhagen, 2002 V Turin, 2005 VI Singapore, 2007 VII Glasgow, 2009 VIII Madrid, 2010 IX Stanford, 2011 X Indonesia, 2012 XI London, 2013
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