The dynamics of local knowledge creation: the central role of local commons of innovation / BY: Patrick Cohendet, David Grandadam, Raphaël Suire
This paper aims at deepening a research agenda that analyzes the processes by which new developments of ideas and artifacts crystallize at the local level. Our view is that the dynamics of knowledge formation at the local level should not be reduced solely to the interaction of firms and other formal entities. It should go beyond classical theoretical frameworks, which analyze local/global interactions of knowledge, whether through the lens of cluster theories or through the perspectives of multinational theoretical approaches. In this paper, the ‘local’ is essentially viewed as “an ecosystem where the dynamics underlying the formation of new ideas and knowledge relies on the continuous interplay between, on one side, firms viewed as formal organizations, and, on the other side, a myriad of informal local active units, such as communities and other collectives” (Bathelt and Cohendet, 2014: p. 870).
We argue that the core of the dynamics of knowledge creation at the local level is the result of interactions between, on one side, formal entities such as firms and organizations, and, on the other side, informal entities such as individual agents or diverse collectives and communities. Such a perspective departs from most approaches, such as industrial districts, geographical clusters or local systems of innovation, that consider that local agglomerations, viewed as systems of homogenous formal entities, trigger the dynamics of knowledge creation through the formation of knowledge externalities and networks (Maskell and Malmberg, 1999; Lundvall, 2007).
Focusing on the interactions between the formal and the informal as a key source of the dynamics of knowledge creation at the local level entails developing a territorial framework of an ecosystem of knowledge flows based on heterogeneous actors (formal entities such as firms, as well as individuals,communities and other types of informal collectives). Recent theoretical constructs have brought significant theoretical elements to better understand the dynamics of knowledge formation at the local level. The evolutionary approach to economic geography (Boschma and Frenken, 2006; Boschma and Martin, 2010) clearly posits that the spatial structures of the economy emerge from the micro-behaviors of economic agents, who contribute to connect (related or unrelated) technological, product or skill-based spaces. In a similar way, the relational perspective in economic geography focuses on the analysis of economic practices at the micro level – be it related to specific actors or the social relations between them (Bathelt and Glückler, 2003; Faulconbridge, 2017). Both the evolutionary and relational approaches consider that actions and interactions constitute the driving force from which knowledge innovation occur. These views, however, often overlook the role of informal actors in these innovation processes.
The perspectives on ecosystems (Thomas and Autio, 2020) explicitly highlight the role of informal agents and non-contractual governance modes in the local building of knowledge, but we consider that a fundamental dimension of this formation of local knowledge involving these informal actors and linkages is still lacking in the literature. The recent theoretical constructs do not explain how informal groups can build governance institutions for mutual cooperation to create a common pool of distributed innovation resources in order to transform new ideas into an innovation. In other words, in the understanding of the fabric of local knowledge, we can learn from these recent approaches to better understand the conditions that favor the building of local knowledge, but we do not really know what the informal entities, individual agents or communities actually do together to build new knowledge at the local scale.
Our view is the stream of research on the notion of “commons”, initiated by Elinor Ostrom, can contribute to help answering the above issues. Understood as a ‘common pool of resources’, the notion of commons was highlighted by Ostrom (1990), analyzing the natural resources commons. Ostrom later extended the concept to a much broader set, including knowledge resources, which she labeled as ‘knowledge commons’ (Hess and Ostrom, 2007). This approach aimed at explaining how knowledge resources are developed through citizen-level collective action and without government intervention. Drawing on Ostrom’s perspective, a series of recent works investigated and enriched the concept (Cutcher-Gershenfeld and Lawson, 2010; Potts, 2012; Allen and Potts, 2016). In particular, Potts (2012) views innovation commons as an institution in which different stakeholders (even if competing) engage in collective action and cooperate in order to nurture the dynamics of innovation by developing rules to create, share and govern innovation resources.
Based on these remarks, our intent, in this paper, is to introduce and emphasize the notion of local commons of innovation, drawing on Ostrom’s perspective on the management of local pools of knowledge (1990), which we see as a theoretical missing piece that adds to the understanding of the dynamics of local ecosystems of innovation. The paper is structured as followed: in a first part, we offer a review of literature on the role of informal in the building of local knowledge. After having emphasized the limits of the current approaches to fully cope with the dynamics of formation of new knowledge in local contexts, a second part investigates in detail the notion of commons of innovation. A third part aims at the integration between the recent approaches on ecosystems of innovation, with the notion of innovation commons to highlight the importance of local commons of innovation; in a last part the specific case of a fablab and maker ethos will be investigated as an example of local commons of innovation, which also emphasizes the importance of local/global interactions and the specific institutional arrangements supporting technologically-based project emergence.