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Regional Cultural Economy, Innovation and Learning

Regional Cultural Economy, Innovation and Learning

Over the last decade there has emerged a consensus that we cannot fully understand the relationship between private sector innovation and regional growth outside of the socially constructed conventions, norms, values and evaluative criteria which facilitate and regulate the economic behaviour of firms, and which hold dynamic regional economies together beyond mere economic specialisation and interlinkage. Nevertheless, these links remain poorly understood, with references to 'culture' still seen by many as appealing to a mystical set of forces, or else a 'dustbin category' into which we lump anything sociological that we cannot fully explain.

Within this context, the PhD research of Dr Al James (ESRC-funded, grant number: R00429934224) focused on the high tech industrial cluster in Salt Lake City, Utah as a visible case study to help further our understanding of regional cultural economy. This work was awarded the prize for 'Best UK PhD in Economic Geography, 2003' by the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers (Economic Geography Research Group).

Figure 1: Theorising high tech regional dynamism
Diagram as described adjacent

Figure 2: Case study: Salt Lake City (high tech meets Mormonism)
Salt Lake City

This research explored four key areas:

  1. the ways in which firms' organisational structures, decision-making processes, and observed patterns of behaviour are constituted through, and differentially shaped by, the socially constructed norms, values and evaluative criteria within Mormonism, Utah's dominant regional culture;
  2. the impacts of that cultural embedding on intra- and inter-firm learning and innovation processes, and hence on firms' economic competitiveness;
  3. the multi-scaled mechanisms through which firms' cultural embedding in the region is (re)constructed over time; and
  4. the spatial limits that cultural economy places on the efficacy of high tech cluster policy and the emulation of so-called 'blueprint' regions.

Some subsequent work has involved applying the conceptual frameworks developed in the above PhD to the ICT cluster in Cambridge with its distinctive masculinist regional industrial culture (see Gray and James, 2006a, 2006b).

Figure 3: Understanding the cultural embeddedness of Utah's software firms
Mormon culture
Regional industrial / corporate culture
(promoting success)
Unity and mutual trust Interfirm co-operation and trust
Self-sufficiency and anti-debt Venture capital sought
Family (then church) above all Sleeping bags under the desk
Afterwork socialising
Respect for established ideas, hierarchy, authority Creative dissent, multiple advocacy
Figure 4: Measuring the impacts of cultural embeddedness on firm performance
Metric of Firm Competitiveness Survey Sample
(105 firms)
Case Study Sample
(20 firms)
(1-19 emp)
(20-99 emp)

(20-99 emp)
Mormon Non Mormon Non Mormon Non
(i) Revenue growth since start-up  
(a) Linear
(2000 UT revenue / age)
0.16 0.32 0.78 1.05 0.18 0.73
(b) Exponential
(2000 UT revenue / √age)
0.28 1.05 1.70 1.68 0.56 1.57
(iii) R&D intensity type I
(R&D expend : sales revenue)
0.23 0.24 0.22 0.53 0.29 0.59
(iv) R&D intensity type II
(R&D emp : total emp)
0.55 0.57 0.40 0.58 0.57 0.34
(v) Productivity
($1000 revenue / employee)
60.47 155.71 123.69 88.82 88.74 103.83
Definition of Mormon Vs Non-Mormon Firms Founding and management ONLY Founding, management AND majority workforce

Figure 5: Unpacking the mechanisms of firms' cultural embedding in the region
Diagram as described adjacent


Publications arising from this project include:

  1. James, A., 2005. Demystifying the role of culture in innovative regional economies, Regional Studies 39 (9): 1197-1216.
  2. James, A., 2006. On the Spatial Limits of Culture in High Tech Regional Economic Development. Chapter 8 in Sarah Radcliffe edited volume, Culture and Development in a Globalising World: Geographies, Actors and Paradigms, Routledge, London, pp. 176-202.
  3. James, A., 2006. Critical Moments in the Production of 'Rigorous' and 'Relevant' Cultural Economic Geographies. Forthcoming in Progress in Human Geography 30(6).
  4. James, A., 2006. Demystifying the Role of Culture in Innovative Regional Economies. Forthcoming in Martin, R.L. and Sunley, P. (eds.), Critical Concepts in Economic Geography: Volume IV, The Cultural Economy, Routledge, London.