Speaking Volumes: Wealth From Knowledge

July 10, 1998

Luke Georghiou on J. Langrish, M. Gibbons, W. G. Evans and F. R. Jevons's Wealth From Knowledge: A Study of Innovation in Industry .

Wealth from knowledge - a phrase that could resonate as a slogan for governments and firms today as they struggle to avoid exclusion from the knowledge-based society of the 21st century. They were three words that were to summarise a large portion of my intellectual agenda in the years to follow. They captured succinctly a relationship that was simple in concept but elusive in practice.

Back in 1972, when Wealth from Knowledge was published, the linear model of innovation reigned with few challengers. "Basic research provides most of the original discoveries from which all other progress flows," wrote the Council for Scientific Policy in 1967. Through study of 84 winners of the Queen's Award for Innovation the authors of this book taught us that "science does work economic miracles, but it acts in rather mysterious ways its wonders to perform". More prosaically, they found basic research providing industry with techniques of investigation to solve industrial problems, with people trained in techniques and scientific thought, and with occasional breakthroughs that became embodied in technology and drove a host of other innovations. It has taken much of the ensuing quarter of a century for these ideas to become mainstream. Even today, policy statements condemn the linear model in their rhetoric and then proceed to try to implement it.

It is not only the intellectual and policy significance of this book that caused me to choose it. Wealth from Knowledge and two of its authors changed the direction of my professional life. The first, Fred Jevons, founding professor of the chair I now hold, stimulated my interest as an undergraduate sufficiently to tempt me away from my original discipline of physics into the study of science and technology as social and economic phenomena. His successor, Michael Gibbons, became my doctoral supervisor, first employer and long-term research collaborator. It was with Gibbons and other colleagues that I was to embark on my own first major research effort, a project cast in the mould of Wealth from Knowledge. The idea was simple: to revisit Queen's Award winners 15 years later and find out what happened subsequent to the award - Post-Innovation Performance as we called the book. Our motives were more complex. The original study had teased out the factors underpinning successful innovation but in the meantime new ideas had appeared. From this perspective we would seek to establish that success in the market came not from being the innovator but from being the firm that could successfully produce a "trajectory" of improvements and anticipate a rising "corridor" of characteristics demanded by users.

For three years we trod in the footsteps of our predecessors, sometimes literally. It became a familiar routine: a few telephone calls and letters to track down the innovators, hospitality in the cloned industrial dining rooms and usually fond memories of an award that had been the highlight of someone's career. Sometimes the success had turned sour: awards had gone to the firm responsible for concrete system building, associated with some infamous 1960s housing projects, and to the design of the first Severn Bridge, later plagued by corrosion. For others success had come and gone. For most, though, the technology was kept moving to keep up with changing circumstances, compete with emerging technologies and to enter new applications.

If there was a fault in Wealth from Knowledge, it was the implicit assumption that successful innovation came from winning a sprint, when a better analogy would be a continuous track race where contestants could join, win for a few laps, drop back, recover or perhaps quit the contest. But this is hindsight. The book remains a testimony to the power of empirical research uncluttered by the assumptions of the day and a reminder to those in my own field that you cannot study innovation without walking through those factory gates.

Luke Georghiou is professor of science and technology policy and management, University of Manchester.

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