• THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN KNOWLEDGE AND INNOVATION


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THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF INNOVATION:
TOWARDS A KNOWLEDGE-BASED APPROACH
Chris Collinge
Centre for Urban and Regional Studies
University of Birmingham
27.3.06
Paper for EURODITE meeting 30-31 March 2006
DG Research, European Commission, Brussels
01/10/2007; 14:18 1
"New ideas can be good and bad, just the same as old ones" - Eleanor Roosevelt
Introduction
First of all let us say a few words about the meaning of the term ‘innovation’. For
Schumpeter an innovation is a change in the form of the production function such that
old inputs can be combined in new ways through, for example, advances not only in
scientific understanding but also in organizational methods (Schumpeter 1939). For
Nelson and Rosenberg, however, innovation occurs primarily in reference to
technology, and in their well-known book they ignore its institutional forms (Nelson
and Rosenberg 1993). They do however draw an important distinction between things
that are new within a particular setting (e.g. firm or place) and things that are new to
the entire world – between what we might be call local and global innovations – and
they note that the former may be at least as important as the latter for business
profitability (Nelson and Rosenberg 1993, p.4). Likewise Carlsson and Stankiewicz
(following Lundvall) stress the technological dimension of innovation, but include
knowledge (‘know-how’ or ‘software’) alongside hardware within this notion
(Carlsson 1995, p.3; Lundvall 1992). The concept of ‘innovation’ is therefore
associated with certain tendencies as follows:
o the tendency to stress the significance of technology and to place this at the centre
of the economic development process;
o the tendency to stress the significance of change over continuity (and over other
variables such as performance);
o the tendency to equate change with improvements in performance, and to endorse a
teleological view of history in which things are moving in a progressive direction;
o the tendency to assimilate innovations and ideas, with new technology being seen
as a direct expression of new ideas;
o the tendency to fall back upon a model of economic development in which
knowledge figures primarily as part of product development – either in an heroic
conveyor belt from invention to innovation to marketable product, or perhaps in
the prosaic incrementalism of learning-by-doing.
This last tendency has in particular meant that the investigation of knowledge in the
economy has been treated as a continuation of the innovation problematic. In laying
the groundwork for the EURODITE project it is therefore important to explore the
differences between knowledge and innovation, and in the process to explore the
different dimensions of each. In the present paper we begin the task of identifying the
differences between knowledge-based and innovation-based approaches to economic
change.
The Innovation Problematic
There is within the economic literature a complex interweaving of the concepts of
knowledge, innovation and technology. It is for instance the general practice
throughout endogenous growth theory to assimilate technology to ideas, and to assume
that new technology comes about through the implementation of new ideas (Romer
1986, 1990; Grossman and Helpman 1991; Aghion and Howitt 1992; Jones 2004).
This link is perhaps determined by the belief that it is ideas that have independent scale
effects – that increased economic growth rates depend especially upon a supply of
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additional ideas through R&D (rather than an increase in the volume of other factors).
But ideas function within economic settings in complex ways, and there is for instance
a big difference between:
o products and the ideas that inform products (old or new),
o product ideas and the ideas that products represent or convey,
o product ideas and the ideas – knowledge or culture – that sustains
businesses as going concerns from one time-period to the next,
Ideas may therefore inform the design and construction of products but should not be
assimilated to the latter for analytical or scientific purposes. Indeed both ideas and
objects are open to innovation, and it would confuse our analysis of their interaction to
equate either of these to innovations. The purpose of the EURODITE project is “to
understand the role of knowledge in the economies of European regions, in order to
inform policies to promote the transition of these regions towards a knowledge-based
economy with enhanced social cohesion” (for a full statement see Appendix 1). We are
in particular interested in the relationship of knowledge to business performance and
thence to economic performance, whether or not this passes through what might be
thought of as an innovation stage. We should not begin by assuming that product-
related knowledge and the novelty of this is all important and therefore central to our
concern. To emphasize new product ideas over business knowledge in general would
be to beg the question of knowledge, to reduce the knowledge problematic to that of
innovation.
Figure 1: The structure of novelty
Ideas Objects
Old
New
The emphasis of EURODITE upon knowledge rather than innovation, and so the
novelty issue is of secondary importance. New knowledge is however one form of
innovation, and so to understand the significance of new knowledge it is worth
spending some time seeing if we can understand the concept of innovation. Perhaps
innovations differ from knowledge in that the latter is not itself a kind of technology?
But whilst we tend to think of technology in terms of hardware there is no reason why
the term cannot be extended to include any instrument – material or social – that has
been designed or selected for a purpose. Indeed if instrumentality is the defining
characteristic of technology then it is hard to think of an economic good – including
scientific knowledge itself – that is not an item of technology in some way. Ideas can
therefore be regarded as a kind (perhaps a special, nonrival kind) of technology, in
which case we are left with the question of novelty.
The development of each new idea, each novelty that is accepted as such within a
tradition, draws upon a growing stock of knowledge in one form or another.
Traditional knowledges do not reside simply in books or heads but inform objects and
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processes that stretch out and constitute an entire world, and it is this system that is
implicated in each act of novelty. Each tradition will inhibit some ideational
innovations (perhaps because the easiest ideas have already been discovered, or
because the force of authority discourages certain questions) but generally it will also
encourage others (perhaps because in a Kuhnian manner old ideas become inconsistent
with one another). In the process although some old ideas may be overthrown, the
position of others will at the same time be reinforced and entrenched. It is this dynamic
between the old and the new that has recently preoccupied growth theorists attempting
to overcome the problems associated with knowledge scale effects (Jones 1995;
Dinopoulos and Thompson 1998; for a review see Jones 2004). As soon as the
problematic of innovation is introduced into any field then the interplay between old
and new, continuity and change, must become central. In so far as there is a concern
with new knowledge as part of the wider EURODITE study then it will examine how
this develops within its tradition, and the relationship of old and new knowledge in this
context. But the dynamic of old and new is only one strand of the dynamics of
knowledge with which Eurodite is concerned, and the notion of stock and flow is a
more embracing relation in which there will always be an intimate mixture of change
and continuity.
Figure 2: The dynamics of knowledge
Old New
Stock archive
Flow circulation innovation
The focus of EURODITE – in for example WP6 – should be upon mapping knowledge
within firms, establishing ways of describing the knowledge domains that are found,
the relationships between stocks and flows and – in a very local sense – between
continuity and change.
The Impossibility of Innovation
There are two reasons for wanting to shift the focus of attention away from innovation
towards knowledge, and in the process to develop the knowledge problematic and
paradigm. The first reason is the obvious importance of knowledge to every type of
economic activity, and its strange neglect within economics at least until the 1980s.
But the second reason is to be found in the difficulties that arise in working with the
notion of ‘innovation’ itself. It is important here to say something about the nature of
these difficulties (on this see also Blake and Hanson 2005).
‘Innovation’ is the process of bringing ‘novelty’ into being, but to analyse this a little
further it is useful to recognise that novelty is a kind of ‘difference’, and to explore
some of the issues which innovation raises in the more neutral language of sameness
and difference. Differences between things can occur in space or time: one thing can
differ from another that it is next to in space or that it succeeds in time. When one
moment follows another without difference in content then we have ‘continuity’,
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whilst if there is a difference then we have ‘change’. ‘Change’ and ‘novelty’ resemble
one another in that each involves the two dimensions of similarity and temporality –
one thing must differ from others within its context and follow these in time to be
regarded as a change or a novelty.
Figure 3: the dimensions of innovation
SPACE TIME
SAME IDENTITY CONTINUITY
DIFFERENT DIFFERENCE CHANGE
But ‘innovation’ also carries two further teleological implications that go beyond the
process of change. It implies that the change is designed to some degree (in its
inception or in its application) and not the result of (say) blind chance, and it implies
that the change extends the forward motion or progress of the particular context within
which it is set (whether this is local or global). In the first case the novel status of a
product depends on – is relative to – the purposes of its producers, whilst in the second
it is relative to the purposes (and so the sense of progress) of its users. Many
innovations are (as Schumpeter observed) new combinations of existing materials or
new applications of existing designs. Aspirin, for example, is now prescribed to reduce
blood-pressure and avoid heart attack as well as to cure headaches. If this step is to be
regarded as an instance of innovation then it has to be recognised that novelty lies in
the reapplication of an old substance to a new purpose.
Furthermore, whilst an innovation is a kind of difference it has the additional
implication of ‘exclusivity’, of being different to all others within the particular
setting. The innovatory status of a change is therefore always relative to its context,
dependant upon the field against which it is compared, whether this is local or global.
A global innovation is new in a global context, and its difference does not reduce to
the same in other (earthly) contexts. A local innovation is new to (say) a particular
factory or place, and what is different (new) in one context will therefore be reduced to
the same (old) in other contexts. Local innovations may arise either through discovery
or duplication, whilst global innovations must arise only through discovery. The
localness of innovation can also be temporal as well as spatial, such that repetition is
precluded within a particular time horizon: bringing trams back to British cities is a
temporally local innovation in the context of current transport pressures, not in the
longer context of the modern era. But when trams were first introduced to British cities
this was a temporally global innovation in that it did not repeat something that had
been done earlier – in that particular country.
If however we put these connotations to one side and limit ourselves to a simplified
notion of novelty as change, then to operate with this concept a series of decisions
must be made regarding what will count as new, decisions that are prompted by the
following experiences:
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1. Churning. Let us think of the most unchanging socioeconomic environment we
can imagine, perhaps the palaeolithic phase of hunting-gathering that occupied
most of early human history (and is discussed in for example Kremer 1993 or
Jones 2004). The process of sustaining something that can be regarded as the same,
the process of sustaining continuity from one time period to the next, depends upon
replacing parts that wear out by others that are effectively the same. This process
of replacement might be referred to as ‘churning’, in which each unique person or
thing, each word or thought is over time replaced by another that does more or less
the same job. But of course each person or thing, each word or thought, is distinct
from those others it replaces, and the very act of identifying two singular things as
‘the same’ presupposes that they are also distinct from one another. This is not just
a matter of semantics: lumping together all palaeolithic practices as ‘hunting-
gathering’ does violence to the singularity of our ancestors’ lives, and misses the
crucial point that continuity may have been their greatest achievement, permitting
practices and ideas (e.g. about survival) to endure beyond a single generation.
Continuity is therefore dependent upon – enfolds – the change process identified as
churning, and the experience of novelty is relative to the churning that achieves its
absence.
2. Iteration. Over recent years a novel or innovative approach to design and
marketing has been one that harnesses designs from the past, designs with
particular positive associations, and places these in a new market context (e.g.
presenting nostalgic echoes through hot-rod design in family saloon cars). But this
exposes the way that applying an existing design in a new setting will always
involve it in new meanings – for example nostalgia – and therefore enable it to be
regarded as innovation. To repeat something in a new setting where it unavoidably
acquires new meanings and purposes is the process of iteration. At the lowest most
local level innovation occurs in this process, which stops something from being
‘the same’ (allows its singularity to appear) from one setting to another.
3. Categories. The stability and continuity of Palaeolithic society, like that of
anything else, is therefore a practical accomplishment that depends not only upon
churning but also upon decisions about the types of changes that will be
acknowledged as such and the types that will be ignored – about changes that will
be counted as change and changes that will be counted as continuity. Indeed this
applies at every level of abstraction: there are for example continuities that involve
constant change and departures from these continuities (e.g. accelerating economic
growth rates) that represent meta-changes or perhaps innovations. The iteration
process may not be regarded as innovation, even though it introduces the novelty
of singularity with each use of a product, but to reduce it to continuity depends
upon the imposition of such categories of identity. The experience of novelty is
therefore relative to the concepts of identity, the levels of abstraction and the
thresholds of change with which one is attempting to work. The continuity of a
product or idea is therefore relative in that, given the pervasive experience of
churning, continuity depends upon how similar it is, the mixture and balance
between change and continuity that it is thought to manifests, and the standards
that are set for this judgement.
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4. Strategic Continuity. Likewise it is important for a business to retain a context of
continuity over time whilst strategically engaging in change and novelty. An
example of crucial continuity would be the standards that establish common
infrastructures (in the widest sense including customer familiarity) within which
differences can be recognised as novelties or innovations. Another example would
be that of the brands (e.g. The Financial Times; or Rolls Royce) that are familiar
and reassures the customer that what will be purchased is of a certain set of
qualities. A third example of crucial continuity is however closer to the innovation
process, and concerns the guarding of the innovation. As growth theorists have
argued in their models of inter-temporal equilibria, firms are discouraged from
investing in new product development if they expect further products to come
along soon to replace these (e.g. Aghion and Howitt 1992). Firms therefore seek
ways of preserving the novelty of their innovations over time – of establishing the
continuity of their products against future innovations – through use of IPR,
through the establishment of standards, and through barriers-to-entry (e.g.
advertising). An innovation that is ephemeral and gives an ephemeral advantage is
little use to a firm, and just as change (churning) is folded within continuity so
continuity is therefore folded within change.
5. Otherness. Winding the clock forward we may feel that the present is the most
changeful socioeconomic environment that there has so far been, with the
diversification of sciences, accelerating design and product cycles, new media and
new ways of working. For contemporary society a new object or activity is one that
develops the tradition to which it belongs by departing from this to a certain degree
– whether vertically or horizontally – and that by virtue of this can be classed as
‘new’. Something that departs too little from the past will not be new because it
will be seen (e.g. by customers or by the Patents Office) as too similar to its
comparators and will therefore fall back into the category of churning, of the same
old stuff. But something that is too different, that departs too far from the past will
not be discernable as new – as a development from those others that it to some
degree resembles and against which its difference is being measured. Just as the
process of identifying two singularities as the same acknowledges that they are to
some degree distinct and so different (continuity is a mixture of continuity and
change in this generalised sense) so identifying two similarities as different also
acknowledges that they are to some degree comparable and therefore the same
(change is a mixture of continuity and change in this generalised sense). The
difference and novelty of a product or idea is therefore relative in that it depends
not only upon the set of other things against which it is being compared within its
context, but upon how different it is, the mixture and balance between continuity
and change that it is thought to manifests, and the standards that are set for this
judgement within the setting. Each novelty is regarded as a mixture of the new and
the old, the same and the different, and if it cannot be so regarded then it is not
‘new’ (i.e. related to something in existence) but simply one-off or ‘other’.
6. Lawfulness. It might be argued that there are rules for deciding between continuity
and change or novelty, and for handling the problems of churning, iteration and
otherness, that the categories which allow us to distinguish between continuity and
change settle this in an orderly way. But each reapplication of any rule is itself
unruly or unlawful – no application can be determined in advance by means of a
generalisation unless we postulate a second-order law of law-applications, which
01/10/2007; 14:18 7
leads immediately into an infinite regress – and is therefore open to iteration and
alteration. Once again we see the relativity and perspectivality of innovation.
The phenomena of sameness and difference, of continuity and change, are so bound up
with one another that in the end it becomes impossible to determine with confidence
what combination of each is involved in any product or activity. All we can say with
certainty is that any product or activity will be a complex mixture of the two, without it
being especially useful or feasible to determine what the proportions are within this
mixture, or where the split between them exactly lies.
Social Construction of Novelty
Whilst it may be interesting to consider what is the same and what is different, the key
question for the firm and the economy is how to survive and grow. The novelty of a
product is more important, and is therefore more of a preoccupation, in some fields of
endeavour than in others – in for example drug development rather than (say)
management consultancy or public transport. But in either context the primary concern
is less to develop novelty for its own sake more to develop solutions to particular
problems, and it may not matter whether the solution is old or new as long as it can be
produced profitably.
An interesting and important topic is therefore the reasons why the ‘novelty’ of an
item becomes an important focus for participants, the ways and processes through
which this happens, and the practices through which novelty is defined and accredited.
The Patent Office, marketeers or consumers (including peer reviewers) may for
example be the arbiters of novelty – consumers because they will tell whether their
problem has been solved better than before, the marketeer because ‘novelty’ (like
continuity) may be a selling point, and the Patent Office because patent-novelty grants
the monopoly power that derives from ownership of the IPR.
A way of testing whether the focus of a study is really upon innovation as against
product development is to see whether steps have been taken to demonstrate the
novelty of the product. Studies which take the novelty of products as given – which
accept practitioners’ notions of novelty and their claims as to product innovativeness –
are contributing to and reinforcing the rhetoric of innovation whilst actually focussing
upon the solution of problems in the product development process. Given the
imponderable nature of novelty and innovation, any study that is truly focussed upon
innovation (rather than the process of product or business development in general) will
want to understand how this becomes an issue for participants and how they seek to
resolve it – how the producers and arbiters of novelty define this and attempt to
persuade each other of their accomplishments.
Elements of a Knowledge Paradigm
The purpose of the EURODITE study is to develop an understanding of regional
economic development by highlighting the role of knowledge. The focus of such a
study will therefore be upon the ways in which knowledge contributes to business and
thence to economic success. Rather than assuming that this contribution is mediated
primarily through the product development or innovation process, the study will
therefore want to examine the different domains and levels of knowledge within firms,
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and to understand the ways in which these operate dynamically with one another in the
course of building business success. The kinds of ways in which knowledge
participates in business survival and expansion include some or all of the following:
o the different fields of expertise that are involved in making a business run
successfully,
o the ways in which branding and the defence of brands – as aspects of our
knowledge of products, and of a firm’s self-knowledge – are constructed and
defended,
o the ways in which firm identities are constituted by harnessing (for example)
positive aspects of an image and embroidering or defending this,
o the significance of standards – as inter-firm knowledge frameworks – and the
ways these are negotiated, changed or sustained,
o the ability that managers must have to guide – empower and restrain – R&D
and other engineering-driven activities, or the marketing activities, of firms if
they are to remain profitable,
o the knowledge that is required to determine when it is tactically correct to
undertake new product development for oneself, or to take over other firms or
inventor’s product ideas,
o more generally the knowledge that managers and entrepreneurs need to have
regarding the other knowledges that they draw upon – the meta-knowledges
and reflexive knowledges of participants – and the place of these within the
knowledge that comprises the business strategy.
The relationship of knowledge stocks and flows, and the role of (for example)
knowledge spillovers, will occur in each of these fields. It may be that our field-work
can open up a knowledge paradigm in economic development by examining these
kinds of issues. To develop such a knowledge-based approach to economic
development it is perhaps especially useful to think about the knowledge dynamics of
firms (and regions) that involve knowledge-intensive business services, and to apply
this model to other (perhaps manufacturing) sectors.
Conclusions
The innovation paradigm is long established and tends to impel researchers and policy-
makers in a certain direction – towards the centrality of technology and of change to
economic development in which (in particular) there is a flow from scientific
knowledge or invention through innovation and product development to the market.
The emphasis then is placed upon (for example) the linking of scientists in universities
(say) to particular markets via their bright ideas. Now whilst of course this process
does occur, and whilst knowledge is crucial to it, it would distort our understanding of
the role of knowledge in business – or regional – success to stress this paradigm. There
is much more to knowledge dynamics than the contribution of new ideas to new
products, and it is this ‘much more’ that the EURODITE project should identify and
explain.
At the same time, there are serious problems with the innovation paradigm itself.
Given the degree to which continuity and change are interwoven, and given the hyper-
relativity of innovation (its dependence upon purposes and context, upon categories
that are supposed to manage the problems of churning, iteration and otherness)
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anything that counts as innovation from one point of view will at the same time count
as non-innovation from several other available angles. The decision as to whether
something is to count as innovation is therefore political, is usually confined to
particular settings, and is usually taken as given by social scientists rather than tested.
When social scientists buy uncritically into this terminology they add a further twist to
the rhetoric of the novel whilst diverting attention away from wider questions of
business and economic development.
Novelty is in practice less important than the contribution of ideas as products as well
as factors to the performance of firms and economies – which may involve the
perception of novelty on the part of firms or their customers, in which case the
emphasis will be upon how this perception is constructed and accomplished.
01/10/2007; 14:18 10
Glossary Notes
Disinnovation: Corporate strategies often concern the limitation of innovation –
withdrawing innovations from the market, or preventing them from reaching it, in
order to defend market dominance amongst big players – e.g. ICT or biotech firms
buying up new starts and closing them down for this reason; e.g. auto firms refusing to
disclose their architectures to the public, suppliers and competitors – a disclosure that
would facilitate further innovation – in order to protect their control over parts and
their brands. Ditto Open Source software. We mustn’t forget that the point of business
is not knowledge or products but profits and power.
Annovation: The introduction of a new product that the customer does not want, and
that – if they were able to choose – and perhaps if they knew about it – they would
avoid – e.g. GM rice getting into British shops because of the collusion of the Food
Safety Agency (Sept 2006).
01/10/2007; 14:18 11
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