Ron Boschma (2005) Proximity and Innovation: A Critical Assessment,
Regional Studies, 39:1, 61-74
Professor in Regional Economics
Department of Economic Geography, Faculty of GeoSciences, Utrecht University
The interview transcript
Hello Ron thank you for accepting my invitation to a coffee break how are you doing?
I’m fine thank you
I would like to talk with you today about a paper you wrote in which you analyze how a geographical proximity influences interactive learning and innovation. Could you please tell me what the paper was about?
yes, well there was a huge debate in the in the early 2000s right because the paper was published in 2005 whether ICT and globalization would make the the notion of distance meaningless right, so that we could communicate over very large distances because we can you just use the internet or the phone, mobile phone and other communication technologies, so we don’t need to be very close-by geographically speaking, but there are of course many geographers that said the opposite and said well no you have to be very close by because that’s the only way to uh to communicate effectively between two people and that might lead to innovation. So there were two opposing views and and I was thinking about okay is it really true if you want to measure the effect of geographical proximity is that enough or should you not also think about other proximity dimensions that you need in order to communicate with each other, for example geographical proximity might only work when we are also proximate in the social dimension, so if we know each other already for a long time because we were friends in the past or we went to the same school, then we can refer to that as social proximity, so if we are geographical proximate and social proximate then of course you expect that we will communicate much better and that will lead to more innovation.
So how would you define a geographical proximity for innovation?
Geographical proximity just means that you are in the same place or in the same room or in the same building or in the same or in the same location, that you are have a higher probability to see each other and that you can interact on a very high frequency, which is good for knowledge exchange for learning and for innovation. And would you say there are negative impacts or positive impacts of geographical proximity? Yeah the positive impact can only happen when the other proximities dimensions might be there negative aspect is that indeed you can be if you are for example working with somebody uh for many years and you’re very and you’re working at the same place it can actually mean that it might be very harmful for new ideas and innovation because you know exactly who the person is you you share the same knowledge and you have nothing to learn anymore. So therefore a geographical proximity might have a negative effect on innovation.
And based on these let’s say two side effects negative and positive, which ones will you say are the main findings of your paper?
Well then I developed the argument because we don’t know, as I said geographical proximity can have a positive effect, but it can also also have a negative effect then you have to think about well maybe there is some kind of optimum that you could think well you can still benefit from each other’s co-present at a particular location, but you should not be too close by and you should not see each every day otherwise again you it will lead to lock-in and you and you will not learn anything from each other anymore so you are looking for optimal dimensions of proximity that cannot be in the geographical dimension but it can also be on cognitive proximity because if you if we know exactly the same I don’t learn from you then we are cognitive proximate we understand each other perfectly but i don’t learn from you so we have to be also at a bit of a distance in cognitive terms in order to learn from each other so too much proximity is harmful but also too little proximity is harmful so that therefore you’re looking for kind of optimum on all those proximity dimensions.
That’s a very interesting indeed, finding the right balance, so thank you for clarifying that and I’m also very interested in your personal motivation in writing this paper.
Personal motivation uh was in those days I did a lot of conceptual work and so so I tried to I was very much intrigued with this proximity literature which originally came from France but I found it very abstract and not very useful to use empirically so that’s why I decided to write this paper so that you uh in the end I distinguish between five forms of proximity that you can actually measure and you can do empirical research and you can test the ideas that I wrote down in that paper so that was the main motivation.
So I imagine this had a very practical implications also for policy makers, could you please highlight some?
Yeah you you can apply it to policy for example a big policy issue is a cluster policy that many geographers are studying, which is basically the idea that if you put many companies in the same place again you create geographical proximity and then you expect that they will learn from each other and that they do innovate but here you can apply this proximity article because it might be not sufficient to be geographical proximity you need other forms of proximity and that and that you connect when you really have to look at that otherwise cluster policy will not work, also geographical proximity can have a negative effect, so if you put all those firms in the same location you might even uh it might even make innovation decrease instead of increase while policy makers of course want to make, want to ensure that there will be a positive effect of geographical proximity on innovation and that’s why they pursue cluster policy so this has huge implications on policy and cluster policy has been widely adopted in many countries in the world.
That’s fascinating indeed, so thank you very much for your insights and I wish you all the best for your future research and perhaps see you soon in another coffee break.
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