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Building Knowledge Regions in North America

Leonel Corona, Jérôme Doutriaux and Sarfraz A. Mian.

Cheltenham (2006), 304pp., £65.00 (hbk), ISBN 1-845-42430-1

Reviewed by Peter Karl Kresl, Bucknell University (USA).

Learning and knowledge regions are all the rage today, from Peru to the European Union, so few books could be more timely than this by three authors who examine the situation in their individual countries in North America - Canada, Mexico and the United States. While students of the subject will find little that is ground breaking here, there is a very valuable discussion of what works and what doesn't and corroboration of many of the things we have come to understand about knowledge regions.

The three countries differ greatly in terms of per capita income, the role of the private and government sectors, business cultures, support of education at all levels, and so forth. Rather than presenting the reader with a collection of apples and oranges from which little of general use can be distilled, these case studies do provide the basis for a valuable comparative analysis with which the book ends.

Under the rubric of knowledge regions, the authors have used the same general methodology to examine technology innovation poles, science parks, incubators, and formation of new firms as a mechanism for evaluating the policies that have been adopted by each of the countries. The United States and Canada are usually portrayed as being political communities in which the resort to the public and private sectors is quite different. In fact, however, Miran and Doutriaux show us that the United States has been almost as reliant on government support of innovation and the knowledge economy, presumably as a consequence of the importance of national security and defense appropriations, as has Canada. One difference has been that in Canada the national and provincial governments have been quicker to establish government research laboratories; however, they find that the two national systems are converging.

As would be expected, Mexico is the outlier here and this is what gives the authors many of their "lessons and conclusions," essentially policies and conditions that exist in Canada and the United States but are lacking in Mexico. Consistency in government support, access to venture capital, first-rate research universities and other laboratories, and a triple-helix structure (blessedly mentioned only once on page 11), which generates a "local champion," are all important. Furthermore, development of a risk-taking culture is crucial and is desperately lacking in Mexico. The necessity of establishing a sectoral focus to activity is vital for creation of the intra-firm synergies that are so important for knowledge-based clusters. A powerful conclusion of this study is that all three entities – universities, business and government – are vital to success. This is an activity that the market alone cannot do effectively due to the public good and externality aspects that are inherent in the generation, transmission and use of new knowledge. Neither can the public sector alone do any better. This to a considerable degree de-politicizes the building of knowledge regions and highlights its technical aspects.

These efforts at enhancement of knowledge and competitiveness are, of course, best done in an environment that is open to exchange and collaboration. The limitations on the international dimensions of cross-border mutual learning have the potential to be severely limited in the climate of post-September 11 in which many of these linkages are seen to raise actual or potential security concerns or are swept up in a general reluctance to continue policies of open borders. The integration among research teams and intra-firm interaction is most highly developed between the United States and Canada; hence, the concern is greater here and it poses a powerful challenge to Canadian officials.

One can offer a caveat with regard to the conclusions of the authors in that the selection of technology innovation poles differs from country to country: six of six regions identified in Mexico are included, but only four of eleven in Canada and four of fifteen in the United States. Doutriaux admits that his selection of Canadian regions was done with an agenda in mind; hence, one wonders what a study of the complete set in Canada and the United States would produce. The same can be said of the low response rate for several of the surveys of firms, science parks and incubation centers. In spite of this, this is a very interesting book and an contribution to our understanding of how nations can be successful in this increasingly important issue of public policy.