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Department of Geography


Evolutionary Economics and Economic Geography

How does the economic landscape evolve? What are the formative processes involved? Why does economic change occur unevenly across regions and cities? What is the role of regions and cities as arenas of economic evolution? Such questions have not, on the whole received much attention. Over the last few years, however, an embryonic ‘evolutionary turn’ has begun to emerge in economic geography. One aspect of this is an increasing tendency for economic geographers to employ ‘evolutionary’ metaphors, concepts and terminology – such as ‘learning’, path dependence’, ‘selection’ and ‘novelty’ – in their writings. Yet, whilst often suggestive, this body of writing often entails little if any detailed discussion of the evolutionary terms and concepts employed. A second dimension of this ‘evolutionary turn’, however, is much more explicitly concerned to explore how and in what ways recent developments in evolutionary economics itself can be applied to economic-geographic studies, and indeed used to construct a new ‘evolutionary economic geography’ as a distinct body of theory and empirical research.

One very recent research interest being pursued by Prof. Martin is in exploring the scope of and limits to such an ‘evolutionary economic geography’. The focus of this research is on the following questions. The first is what we mean by ‘evolutionary economic geography’. How does it differ from other approaches in economic geography? What are its objects of study, its core concepts, and its theoretical frameworks? Obviously, by its very ambitions ‘evolutionary economic geography’ seeks to apply and adapt ideas and concepts from evolutionary economics. But therein is the second issue: what sort of evolutionary economic concepts and theory should this new approach to economic geography draw upon for inspiration? This is not a straightforward question, for in fact there is not a single, generally agreed or coherent body of evolutionary economics, but rather several different forms and approaches, with different emphases and different conceptual foundations. The development of an evolutionary economic geography’ thus requites a close interrogative analysis of the developments and debates that characterise evolutionary economics itself But thirdly, there is the question of whether and in what ways a geographical perspective can help throw light on the nature and processes of evolution in the economy. That is to say, the task is not just about applying an appropriate paradigm of evolutionary thinking to economic geography – difficult enough though that challenge is: it is also about exploring and explicating how geography – the role of place and space – influences the process of economic evolution, and thereby how economic geography can make a contribution to the development of evolutionary economic thinking.

To examine these and related questions, this project involves collaboration with Professor Ron Boschma, of the University of Utrecht, and has funding from the European Science Foundation for an Exploratory Workshop on Evolutionary Economic Geography, with a meeting in Cambridge in April 2006, which brings together some of the leading scholars across Europe, both evolutionary economists and economic geographers, interested in this new field.

In addition, three more specific projects are underway.

The first involves setting out what the aims and objectives of an evolutionary economic geography should be, and in what ways such an approach differs from and relates to other perspectives in economic geography.

The second is concerned with the nature of path dependence in the economic landscape. According to some evolutionary economists the concept of ‘path dependence’ is one of the fundamental principles of evolutionary economics. Evidence of path dependence abounds in the economic landscape, yet economic geographers typically invoke the term without really understanding the large and often contentious literature on the concept within evolutionary economics and other social sciences. This project seeks to unravel the meaning and role of path dependence in a geographical setting, and argues that to a large degree path dependence is itself a place-dependent process. It also develops a more nuanced notion of lock-in, where this takes on positive as well as negative aspects, and where the nature and extent of lock-in are again place dependent. Further, it directs attention to the importance of path creation processes, and to the need for theoretical underpinnings that take greater cognisance of human agency.

The third project has to do with the idea of regional adaptive capability, with how regional and local economies adapt over time, and why some such economies seem much more able to adapt successfully than others. While thus far these research themes have been mainly conceptual and theoretical in orientation, the aim is to bring them to bear on empirical examples.


Publications arising from this project include:

  1. Path Dependence and Regional Economic Evolution, Journal of Economic Geography, 6. 395-438 (with P. Sunley)
  2. Complexity and the Evolution of the Economic Landscape (with P Sunley), paper submitted to Journal of Economic Geography
  3. Path Dependence in the Economic Landscape, in Berndt, C. and Glückler, J. (Eds) (2006) Denkanstöße zu einer anderen Geographie der Ökonomie. (Reflections on Heterodox Economic Geography), Bielefeld: Verlag (2006)
  4. In Search of Evolutionary Economic Geography, (With P.J. Sunley) Paper presented at the Exploratory Workshop on Evolutionary Economic Geography, St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, April 3-5, 2006.