- Diverse Contexts, Strategies, and Outcomes for Comparative Technology Transfer
Technology transfer concerns the exogenous adaptation of innovations from their place of origin to other organizations, countries, or regions. As the articles in this issue of Comparative Technology Transfer and Society illustrate, the sustainability of diffused innovations depends heavily upon local contexts, requires innovative and flexible adaptation strategies, and results in diverse outcomes.
Economic pressures and increasingly global research interests prompt universities around the world to focus on the commercial potential of their faculties’ research. One result is academic spin-offs. These have varied widely in effectiveness, leading researchers to investigate why some succeed while others have not. In the first article in this issue (University Spin-Offs as Technology Transfer: A Comparative Study among Norway, the United States, and Sweden), Norwegian scholar Alf Steinar Sætre and his co-authors assess the comparative effect of universities’ efforts capitalize on faculty inventions in these three countries. They identified four key dimensions—university relations, government-support mechanisms, industry relations, and equity funding—as central elements in all cases. Interestingly, they also concur with other researchers’ (Julnes & Holzer, 2001; Landry, Lamari, & Amara, 2003) conclusion that the distinctive and varied faculty-research cultures make it difficult for university technology transfer offices to cooperate effectively and consistently with government agencies and venture capitalists. In fact, they conclude that these offices seem to impede the development of startups and spin-offs as often as they help. The authors certainly suggest that increased competencies and a greater understanding of the innovation process among those who dole out grants might diminish waste and increase the effectiveness of government-support systems designed to advance the commercial prospects of technologies originating in universities.
Technology transfer has played a similarly significant yet ambiguous role in national economic development. In the second article (Political Impediments to Technological Diffusion in Northeast Brazil, 1909–1964), historian Eve Buckley uses the case study of water-management projects in northeastern Brazil to study these effects. Beginning in the 1930s, Brazilian reformers sought to replicate the success of the Tennessee Valley [End Page vii] Authority (TVA) in the United States by using similar water-management projects to reduce drought, increase agricultural productivity, and generate electric power in the large northeastern region of their country. While the TVA had achieved tremendous success at using water-management infrastructure improvements not only to achieve economic objectives, but also changes in the political and social culture of Appalachia during the 1930s (Selznick, 1966), the Brazilian projects did not replicate these results. Paradoxically, although the water projects were intended to reduce the imbalance of wealth and power, their actual effect was to increase it. Infrastructure improvements (e.g., dams, roads, and irrigation canals) increased the security of landowners, their crops and their cattle, but did not reduce the poorest inhabitants’ vulnerability to drought or to the exploitative demands of their landowning patrons. In sum, Buckley concludes that underlying political and social factors (e.g., land ownership and class structure) trumped the otherwise admirable agricultural and economic objectives of moderate reformers and strengthened the argument of more radical reformers, who had unsuccessfully pushed for land redistribution in addition to infrastructure improvements. As always, this case demonstrates how local circumstances influence the outcome of international transfer projects designed to promote economic development.
Economic-development literature generally supports this conclusion. While problems in one country may seem similar to those in another, most analysts (Borins, 1998; Jones & Kettl, 2003) are well aware that solutions that are effective in one context may not succeed in another. Thus the term “smart practices” (Bardach, 2000) is preferable to the more commonly used “best practices,” because smart practices bring into view the need to adapt in order to sustain exogenous innovations. While we can learn much from comparative studies, applying what we learn must always take account of a number of variables specific to the local receiving context (Jabbra & Dwivedi, 2004). In this case, this awareness helps explain why reform has ascended in the political agendas of some nations but not others (Barzelay, 2001, 2003). Smart-practice policy making emphasizes first elucidating and then reducing the mechanisms and factors that inhibit adaptation to contingency and...