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date: 09 July 2020

(p. v) Preface

(p. v) Preface

In a famous poem, “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” John Godfrey Saxe (1816–87) described what may happen when different observers approach the same phenomenon from rather different starting points. In the poem Saxe lets one of the blind men approach the elephant's side. The man finds it to be “very like a wall.” Another fits around its leg and concludes that it resembles a tree. And so on. They end up disputing “loud and long.” Saxe drew the following moral:

So oft in theologic wars,

The disputants, I ween,

Rail on in utter ignorance

Of what each others mean,

And prate about an Elephant

Not one of them has seen!

The point is, of course, that each “disputant” has a valid insight, but needs to combine it with the insights of others to reach a holistic understanding. If we substitute “innovation” for the elephant and the “social scientists from different disciplines” for the blind men, we come close to understanding the motives that led to the creation of this handbook. Innovation is a multifaceted phenomenon that cannot be easily squeezed into a particular branch of the social sciences or the humanities. Consequently, the rapidly increasing literature on innovation is characterized by a multitude of perspectives based on—or cutting across—existing disciplines and specializations. There is a danger, however, that scholars studying innovation do it from starting points so different that they become unable to—or not interested in—communicating with each other, preventing the development of a more complete understanding of the phenomenon.

The purpose of this volume is to contribute to a holistic understanding of innovation. The volume includes twenty-one carefully selected and designed contributions, each focusing on a specific aspect of innovation, as well as an introductory essay that sets the stage for the chapters that follow. The authors are leading academic experts on their specific topics, and include economists, geographers, historians, psychologists, and sociologists. Some contributors have engineering degrees in addition to their social science degree. Each chapter can be read separately, but most readers will benefit from reading the introductory essay first. Readers interested in pursuing further study on specific topics will find suggestions for (p. vi) additional reading (marked with asterisks) in the reference list at the end of each chapter.

As with all books there is a history behind it. In fact there are several. There is a long history, related to how innovation studies have evolved over the years. Many of the contributions presented here, Chapter 1 in particular, give elements of that story. The shorter history begins in the mid-1990s with the big impetus to innovation research in Europe provided by the “Framework” programmes of the European Commission. Having participated actively in this research for some time, several of the contributors to this volume became interested in establishing a network that could support discussion and evaluation of its results. For this purpose Jan Fagerberg organized in 1999, with the support of the Norwegian Research Council, an international network for innovation studies that met occasionally to discuss selected topics within innovation research. The meetings of this group led to a proposal for a book reflecting our current knowledge on innovation. Oxford University Press was contacted and welcomed the idea. Economic support from the European Commission and the Norwegian Research Council made it possible for the contributors to meet twice to exchange ideas and comment on each other contributions, greatly enhancing the quality and consistency of the volume.

One of the central participants in the network that led to this volume was Keith Pavitt, Professor at SPRU (University of Sussex) and editor of Research Policy, the leading journal in the field. With a background in both engineering and economics, Keith was one of the pioneers in cross-disciplinary research on innovation. Characterized by a “fact-finding” approach and a lack of respect for received “grand theories” not supported by solid evidence, he influenced generations of younger researchers and helped put innovation studies on its current “issue-driven,” empirically oriented track. Keith enthusiastically supported this book initiative, very quickly (before anybody else) circulated a full draft of a chapter and participated actively in the discussions during the first workshop in Lisbon in November 2002. He died unexpectedly shortly afterwards. The editors and contributors dedicate this book to his memory.

J.F., D.M., R.N.

Oslo, Berkeley, and New York

January 2004