Having played a role in Austin's transformation into “Silicon Hills,” and having consulted for various cities that hope to boost their own high tech economies – and having written a book about it back in '06 – I've been traveling and speaking for UNESCO, helping Asian, Caribbean, and Latin American countries launch their technopolis initiatives. Domestically, the Obama administration has made industrial clusters an important part of its innovation policy. An official of a very large US government agency called me up in late summer, heaped praise on my book, and said, “Dr. Phillips, you must consult for us.”
My ego, and to some extent my wallet, have expanded. My free time for blogging has shrunk.
The aspirations of my audiences and clients span the spectrum of:
- Boosting the capacity of indigenous universities.
- Getting these universities to see value in applied and industrial research, and in the transfer/commercialization of research product.
- Building science and technology parks.
- Building knowledge-based manufacturing and logistics parks.
- Building entire science cities from greenfield.
- Building “clusters” in targeted industries.
- Developing technopoleis that encompasses most or all the above, combined with a pervasive social commitment to local innovation and the quality-of-life that attracts young knowledge workers.
The later notion of cluster, due to Prof. Michael Porter of Harvard, implies a process of lock-in and positive returns to scale in a region when an “anchor company,” highly innovative and active in exporting product from the region, attracts supplier and customer companies that benefit from proximity to the anchor firm. The spillover benefit of knowledge exchange becomes so great that companies in the cluster are reluctant to leave the region even if they are offered a better tax break elsewhere.
The cluster idea refers to companies and company groups only. Technopolis refers to the social, entrepreneurial, and infrastructural environment of a metro region. A technopolis can host several clusters, viz. the electronics and aerospace clusters in Silicon Valley. Similarly, Portland, Oregon is home to a semiconductor innovation cluster, a flat-panel display cluster, and an educational technology cluster. (The New York Times credited me as the godfather of the latter.) Contrariwise, San Diego hosts the world's foremost biotech cluster, but it is a city of military bases, retirement communities, immigrant small businesses, and suppliers to maquila manufacturers, i.e., not a true technopolis.
My own contribution to these efforts focuses on the role of social capital in technopolis development, and of course the role of universities. Frances Fukuyama, perhaps best known for a silly book on “the end of history,” wrote another, absolutely splendid book called Trust. In it, he defined social capital as the tendency of people to form voluntary associations. Not government-driven projects, and not family enterprises, but voluntary organizations at a meso level. Fukuyama documented that countries with a higher tendency to social capital were richer countries.
Early in the 2000's, I had been looking for a conceptual bin that would hold my high-tech economic development experiences from Austin, Portland and elsewhere. Fukuyama's was it. (He did not invent the social capital concept, but was the first to apply it to regional wealth.) I ran with it, applied it to technopolis, and a book and several journal articles and policy papers have resulted. I find technopolis consulting fascinating because of its combination of technology, social culture, geography, architecture, and so on, and because of the hugely varying cultures and constraints under which diverse countries are attempting their initiatives.
When I arrived in Daejeon in November to speak, my Korean hosts at the World Technopolis Association told me, “Hi Fred, the S&T Minister of [a certain very pleasant tropical country] is here, and we told the Minister she needs you to consult on her science park project.” Ah, I love it. As these projects progress and are publicly announced, I'll share more details with you.
The current US administration's emphasis on clusters is a clever one. By financially supporting scattered metro areas' own choices of targeted industries, it sidesteps the “Washington picking winners” approach which has been more or less extinct since the Reagan years, and which would be opposed by all Republicans and even most Democrats. It also makes best use of federal dollars by leveraging the positive returns to scale that characterize successful clusters.
There now seems to be nearly universal awareness that innovation is the key to productivity increase and thus a better and more sustainable standard of living. There is at least hope that this holds true in any region of the world. There is a (pleasantly surprising, to me) near-universal acceptance that initiatives to spur innovation need to be geographically focused, in “growth poles,” as opposed to scattering funds to every district of a country. All these principles point to specialized parks and regional cluster and technopolis efforts as the right way to go.