Innovation Through Time

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Bruland, Kristine
Mowery, David C.
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Most analysts of innovation emphasize the importance of a historical approach, with good reason. First, innovation is time consuming, based on conjectures about the future, and its outcomes typically are uncertain for long periods. Analysis of any innovation therefore requires an understanding of its history. Second, innovative capabilities are developed through complex, cumulative processes of learning. Finally, innovation processes are shaped by social contexts, as Lazonick has pointed out: “The social conditions affecting innovation change over time and vary across productive activities; hence theoretical analysis of the innovative enterprise must be integrated with historical study.” Historical patterns of innovation are characterized by complexity, reflecting the heterogeneous nature of economic activity, and diversity of processes of technology creation across sectors and countries. These characteristics make it problematic to construct overarching schemas of historical development. Nevertheless, some historians and analysts of innovation have developed taxonomies of epochs, often based on “critical technologies” that define whole periods of development. One form of this is the wave theory proposed by Schumpeter in Business Cycles, in which steam power drove the first industrial revolution, electricity the second industrial revolution, and so on. Other work that does not rely on wave theories also stresses the role of a small number of technologies in driving broader processes of economic growth. Although valuable, many of these frameworks overemphasize the importance of the allegedly critical technologies while slighting other areas of innovation and economic activity that are no less important. In what follows we challenge some of the historical discussions that stress the transformative effects of ‘critical innovations’. Instead, we emphasize the complex multisectoral character of innovation, and hence the need to take seriously the co-existence of a range of innovation modes, institutional processes, and organizational forms.
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