Early in the facilitation of the Gippsland Smart Specialisation approach, we experienced an insight into the scale of the initiative via an invitation to interview leading innovation scholars Professor Bjorn Asheim (University of Stavanger) and Professor Ron Boschma (Utrecht University/the University of Stavanger) on the theory and practice of regional innovation.
While they are currently two of the most cited academics in the world, they generously introduced Gippslandia to the field of evolutionary economic geography and divulged insights into how regional areas can become more adaptable and resilient to future stressors.
An excerpt of our conversation with Prof. Boschma is as follows.
Gippslandia: Hello Prof. Boschma, can you please provide an introduction into your field of evolutionary economic geography?
Prof. Boschma: We have been trying to develop a new way to approach economic geography that takes history seriously.
Everything that we find regarding the location of firms, people, regional growth or regional diversification, [demonstrates that] you always have to go back in history to give an explanation for why some regions are capable of growing or diversifying... Individuals have their own past, skills and their own education. That really matters for how they behave in economics. It’s the same for firms, cities or regions; they acquire different competencies over time.
Regions don’t change overnight. They’re constrained by their past. The past provides opportunities, but also sets limits to what you can do.
When you’re exploring a new region, such as Gippsland, how do you read or analyse the area?
We look at how a region can diversify. By examining the developments of the past, we see what the chances are for them to move into new directions and what that is connected to.
We tend to observe that some regions can make a jump and do something quite different, but most regions don’t change that much, because when they do, they make use of existing capabilities. When you’re specialised in agriculture, it’s hard to move into nuclear physics, right?
“Regions don’t change overnight. They’re constrained by their past. The past provides opportunities..."
Then how do you make a region more nimble, or able to adjust to new capabilities?
If you already have a diversified structure, you have a range of very different competencies, and so you can make new combinations between those. There’s much more potential to diversify into new directions and stimulate economic growth [if you’re diversified], than regions that are very specialised in a single activity.
Another enabling factor is the region’s institutions. Some institutions are really inclusive, in the sense that they can stimulate change by making connections across different types of activities, prompting economic growth.
We are increasingly witnessing the importance of intra-regional linkages. It’s very important for cities or regions to connect to the outside world to ensure that they don’t get too locked into specific activities. Connections to other regions provide new ideas, new insights and new competencies that are not available in the region itself.
What insights on Gippsland have excited you so far?
I’ve met some people in the LVA who are very active, especially in the type of policy they’re conducting. They are really proactive. There are new collaborations and there are local approaches to stimulating innovation in the region.
The Smart Specialisation approach, which takes a long-term perspective, is about creating more knowledge-intensive economic activities that will provide greater job opportunities for the future.
I must say I’m very positive about the approach here.