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Complex Adaptive Innovation Systems: Relatedness and Transversality in the Evolving Region (Regions and Cities)

Cooke, Philip
Routledge: London, 2012
ISBN 9780415603751 (hb)

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Reviewed by Petra Ahrweiler
University College Dublin

Cover of book This important book presents a new framework for analysing regional innovation. It is set against the shortcomings of traditional models of regional economic and environmental development, which failed to prevent the recession effects in the wake of the financial crisis we have lived through since 2008. The author accuses the "orthodoxies of over-specialised models to economic growth" for being too focussed on supply-side driven top-down policies such as cluster formation and too reliant on venture capital availability to see the importance of resilient horizontal knowledge interactions and demand-driven innovation, especially in difficult economic times. Rather than promoting pure market competition in their place, he suggests robust "platforms of industrial interaction" within the concepts of Transversality and Relatedness, where innovation policy is closely adapted on a hands-on basis to the special needs of a region. Phil Cooke rightly questions the unsatisfying saturation of current EU regional innovation policies by the industrial economist's "vertical, sectoral specialisation way of thinking (...) with clusters fitting the model perfectly" (p. xv), which led to the "smart specialisation" EU strategy of regional recovery that still awaits beneficial results.

The two main concepts, Transversality and Relatedness, presented in this book follow the tradition of (co-)evolutionary theory in economic geography. The concept of Relatedness encompasses related and un-related variety: varieties of interest in this book are the information, knowledge, institutions and organisations that are responsible for promoting innovation among firms and public administrations, seen from the "analytical base-point" of the region. Geographical proximity, for Phil Cooke, is necessary but not sufficient for interactions between these heterogeneous organisations, where information can also travel far to contribute to knowledge re-combinations. A central statement of the book is the one about the nature of information in innovation, which is characterised by uncertainty and surprise and where history and geography matter likewise: "it explains how co-evolution of path dependent processes can combine in order to branch into new path creation through facilitating path interdependence. The small but crucial addition that has to be made, from a spatial perspective, is that even though the relevant message may come from a great distance geographically or relationally, it has to be exploited in a particular space or place - the location of the innovation design" (p. 5).

A further important concept in this context is Emergence, both as a central property of innovation, which is per se unpredictable, and of the interactive process. Transversality, the "process whereby knowledge emanating from one industrial or institutional source is successfully introduced, analysed and adopted, with modifications, to facilitate the creation of an innovation in a different industry or institution" (p. 67), is at the heart of this process of emergence, which concerns cooperation among unlike entities. Phil Cooke cites Dali: "the chance meeting of a fish and an anvil on an ironing board". The concept of Emergence also provides the bridge for the book to adopt a complexity science perspective, which is close to that of evolutionary biology as represented by Stuart Kauffman.

Chapter 1 introduces these and other main concepts of the book and relates them to its aims: (i) providing a new framework for analysing economic geography, regional development, and regional innovation; (ii) theorising innovation rather than measuring related issues such as research, science and technology using standard variables; (iii) exploring the nature of and rationale for innovation in socio-economic and cultural life; (iv) comparing and contrasting theories of transition and change in complex adaptive systems and among individuals; (v) exploring the spatial rather than only the vertical dimension of innovative interaction by complex system adaptation; (vi) reasserting the importance of regions as bases where innovations actually occur and as entry point for analysis.

The material chapters follow a common structure, which definitely improves the accessibility of their contents for the reader. Each has an introduction to the chapter's purpose, a main part for data presentation and reasoning, and a conclusion with key findings. Chapter 2 is about the difficulties and deficiencies of the supply-side driven policy perspective. Chapter 3 explains in detail the concept of transversality, Chapter 4 embeds it into co-evolutionary theory and regional innovation ideas using some "innovation biography" examples, while Chapter 5 does the same in relating transversality to complexity theory concepts and transition theory illustrated by various eco-innovation examples. Chapter 6 applies the framework to a large set of case studies, especially transition regions. Chapter 7 adds the concepts of relatedness and resilience to the analysis, and tries to reconcile the biologically-inspired complexity science framework with agency aspects. Chapters 8 and 9 look in close detail at the concrete policy implications of the framework in contrast to the recent "policy failure" of EU regional innovation policies.

The book is a must-read for anybody scientifically interested in innovation and complexity theory. It is very inspiring and also challenging in various aspects. In this case, some scepticism might be expressed, whether the chosen complexity science reference is the most appropriate available. The book uses complexity theory concepts drawn from evolutionary biology. With this, its approach inherits two problematic features from evolutionary biology, which question its utility for innovation theory.

The first is the legacy of what is, according to Phil Cooke, also "the core Schumpeterian proposition" (p. 96), that there is nothing new under the sun, and everything is just the recombination of something already existing - "innovation is the recombination of related knowledges" (p. 42, for elaboration pp. 108-112). There seems to be a general consent in this type of literature that this is an appropriate assumption. However, if we look into discussions of "the emergence of the new" in the theory of science, history of science and technology, and sociology of science and technology, there are many findings not in line with this assumption. These findings are the results of long debates about history vs. evolution, determinism vs. voluntarism, causal vs. functional approaches, realism vs. constructivism, reductionism vs. holism etc. For example - to name only a few "classic", evolutionary-friendly, and well-established positions -, there is the view that "the new" appears from a crisis of current theory and observation destroying (not re-combining) "old" "knowledges" (Popper); there is the view that there are "bed-rock" elements of knowledge (Balzer), which are considered "evident" without any further de-composibility (if everything is a result of re-combination, where have they come from in the first place?); there is the view that there is "creative evolution" with true novelty not built from any existing parts (Popper/Eccles); and there is the view that knowledge is produced/constructed by operationally closed systems (Maturana) as a "live performance" of their operations making distinctions rather than (re-)combinations (Luhmann). Of course, these views on the emergence of the new are all related to science, but "the new" is an important feature of innovation. The question remains whether innovation theory would not be better advised to re-consider its re-combination paradigm: the emergence of the new might be what innovation is all about, and it might be a little more complicated than a Lego game. It might be that the chance to refer to something already existing is the reason that evolutionary innovation economics is so concerned with trajectories, regimes, and lock-ins, looking at competing technological paths and co-evolution rather than the emergence of the new. Phil Cooke's book suggests ways out, but the biologically-inspired complexity perspective might not be the most appropriate.

The second and related problem of the biologically-inspired approach is the assumed sub-cognitive and sub-sociological level of information processing. What is missing here is the perspective of human collaborative agency, especially of learning, which is an inherently active and intellectual enterprise both for the teacher and for the learner. Intelligent agency, meaning, and understanding are also characteristics of anticipation, creativity, invention and discovery - all activities responsible for the emergence of the new, i.e. innovation. Instead, in the biologically-inspired approach, knowledge transfer equates with knowledge spillovers, and knowledge exchange misses all semantic dimensions. Maybe the chance to deal with knowledge in the same way as with any other "flow substance" in a structure regardless of its special characteristics is the reason why evolutionary innovation economics is more concerned with innovation diffusion rather than with the emergence of the new. Although Phil Cooke is deeply concerned with the actual place and situation where innovation occurs, the biologically-inspired complexity perspective might not be the most appropriate reference point.

It is doubtful how innovation theory can suspend both the emergence of the new and the agency dimension that enables it. In Chapter 7, Phil Cooke explicitly tries to deal with this deficiency, which he himself identifies as a weakness of his framework. However, though he is familiar with authors such as Giddens, Geertz and Bourdieu as can be seen, for example, in Chapter 4, he does not provide the solution to harmonise biologically-inspired evolutionary theory with agency aspects. Although in Chapter 5 it is explained why a life-focussed evolutionary perspective is superior to physics-focussed complexity theory when it comes to analyse human or social systems, the suspicion remains that a sociologically-inspired evolutionary systems theory containing agency aspects would outperform the biologically-inspired one. Further work needs to be done on this issue, though Phil Cooke has provided solid ground to do it with his attention to the "innovative act" and the reporting of "innovation biographies".

Last but not least, a word concerning the potential readership: the book targets an audience of academics, teachers, and researchers as well as policy advisers and public servants. While this book is a fantastic read for people from his community, and Phil Cooke may know more about regional innovation than any other scholar and is undoubtedly able to provide learning to all types of audiences, the named target audience is probably an artefact of the publisher. The book is clearly more accessible to other scientists of the same field than for any early-career researchers, non-specialists, or practitioners. The expectation of specialist fore-knowledge as a pre-condition for reading and understanding the text, the density of reasoning, the depth of theorising, and the use of sub-disciplinary 'jargon' will probably make it a hard read for anybody not familiar with discussions of a special type of evolutionary approach to regional innovation systems, and this is clear from even a cursory glance at the contents table.

Summarising, the book can be highly recommended to all innovation researchers, because it focuses on the innovation process itself rather than on knowledge and technology production issues. Its critique of the indicator- and variable-based secondary-data methodologies to analyse innovation can be heartily shared, and the alternative suggested is valid and enlightening. The author digests and discusses an impressive amount of literature. As a much-appreciated feature, which makes the book more than a piece of solid theorising, the reader gets acquainted with numerous empirical cases and studies showing that the author is personally highly engaged in eco-innovation issues and is a true expert in the whole regional innovation field.


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