EGRG PhD Prize 2004

Regional Culture, Corporate Strategy and High Tech Innovation: Salt Lake City

Al James (University of Cambridge)

Over the last decade the relationship between private sector innovation and regional growth has become a central avenue of inquiry for geographers. However, while the formal institutional bases of innovative regional economies are relatively well theorised, we still do not fully understand their socio-cultural underpinnings. In contrast to the all-encompassing fuzzy notions of ‘culture’ commonly employed in the literature, I instead unpack regional culture in terms of a culture hierarchy, made up of: (i) individual corporate cultures; (ii) a regional industrial culture; and (iii) the wider regional culture in which these are both set. I argue that we can interpret firms’ cultural embedding in the region in terms of the overlaps between the different levels of this hierarchy and their material impacts on the firm. I illustrate my theory with evidence from Utah’s industrial agglomeration of computer software firms, embedded in a highly visible and distinctive regional culture, Mormonism. First, I demonstrate how Mormon regional cultural values, conventions, norms and attitudes define firms’ own internal systems of organisational control, decision-making processes and hence patterns of observed behaviour. I also measure the degree (strength) of that cultural embedding across a series of visible ‘contents’. Second, I show how firms’ import of regional cultural values impacts upon both their abilities to access new sources of new knowledge and to use new knowledge once it enters the firm. Crucially, my results show that both enablers and constraints on firms’ abilities to innovate stem from the same regional culture in which they are embedded. Third, I develop a cleaner model of cultural embedding using critical realism, grounded in both the key causal mechanisms of embedding and the agents responsible for those. Finally, I outline the wider policy implications of my research, arguing that the limits of high tech policies are largely a function of the overly-narrow economic theory upon which they are premised, and which sidelines the key role of regional culture. Crucially, culture will continue to be ignored by policy-makers until it is more adequately theorised in economic geography.