The Study of the Distributional Outcomes of Innovation: A Book Review

Editors Note: This post is an extended version of a previous post.

Cozzens, Susan and Dhanaraj Thakur (Eds). 2014. Innovation and Inequality: Emerging technologies in an unequal world. Northampton, Massachusetts: Edward Elgar.

Historically, the debate on innovation has focused on the determinants of the pace of innovation—on the premise that innovation is the driver of long-term economic growth. Analysts and policymakers have taken less interest on how innovation-based growth affects income distribution. Less attention even has received the question of how innovation affects other forms of inequality such as economic opportunity, social mobility, access to education, healthcare, and legal representation, or inequalities in exposure to insalubrious environments, be these physical (through exposure to polluted air, water, food or harmful work conditions) or social (neighborhoods ridden with violence and crime). The relation between innovation, equal political representation and the right for people to have a say in the collective decisions that affect their lives can also be added to the list of neglect.

But neglect has not been universal. A small but growing group of analysts have been working for at least three decades to produce a more careful picture of the relationship between innovation and the economy. A distinguished vanguard of this group has recently published a collection of case studies that illuminates our understanding of innovation and inequality—which is the title of the book. The book is edited by Susan Cozzens and Dhanaraj Thakur. Cozzens is a professor in the School of Public Policy and Vice Provost of Academic Affairs at Georgia Tech. She has studied innovation and inequality long before inequality was a hot topic and led the group that collaborated on this book. Thakur is a faculty member of the school College of Public Service and Urban Affairs at Tennessee State University (while writing the book he taught at the University of West Indies in Jamaica). He is an original and sensible voice in the study of social dimensions of communication technologies.

We’d like to highlight here three aspects of the book: the research design, the empirical focus, and the conceptual framework developed from the case studies in the book.

Edited volumes are all too often a collection of disparate papers, but not in this case. This book is patently the product of a research design that probes the evolution of a set of technologies across a wide variety of national settings and, at the same time, it examines the different reactions to new technologies within specific countries. The second part of the book devotes five chapters to study five emerging technologies—recombinant insulin, genetically modified corn, mobile phones, open-source software, and tissue culture—observing the contrasts and similarities of their evolution in different national environments. In turn, part three considers the experience of eight countries, four of high income—Canada, Germany, Malta, and the U.S.—and four of medium or low income—Argentina, Costa Rica, Jamaica, and Mozambique. The stories in part three tell how these countries assimilated these diverse technologies into to their economies and policy environments.

The second aspect to highlight is the deliberate choice of elements for empirical focus. First, the object of inquiry is not all of technology but a discreet set of emerging technologies gaining a specificity that would otherwise be negated if they were to handle the unwieldy concept of “technology” broadly construed. At the same time, this choice reveals the policy orientation of the book because these new entrants have just started to shape the socio-technical spaces they inhabit while the spaces of older technologies have likely ossified. Second, the study offers ample variance in terms of jurisdictions under study, i.e. countries of all income levels; a decision that makes at the same time theory construction more difficult and the test of general premises more robust.[i] We can add that the book avoids sweeping generalizations. Third, they focus on technological projects and their champions, a choice that increases the rigor of the empirical analysis. This choice, naturally, narrows the space of generality but the lessons are more precise and the conjectures are presented with according modesty. The combination of a solid design and clear empirical focus allow the reader to obtain a sense of general insight from the cases taken together that could not be derived from any individual case standing alone.

Economic and technology historians have tackled the effects of technological advancement, from the steam engine to the Internet, but those lessons are not easily applicable to the present because emerging technologies intimate at a different kind of reconfiguration of economic and social structures. It is still too early to know the long-term effects of new technologies like genetically modified crops or mobile phone cash-transfers, but this book does a good job providing useful concepts that begin to form an analytical framework. In addition, the mix of country case studies subverts the disciplinary separation between the economics of innovation (devoted mostly to high-income countries) and development studies (interested in middle and low income economies). As a consequence of these selections, the reader can draw lessons that are likely to apply to technologies and countries other than the ones discussed in this book.

The third aspect we would like to underscore in this review is the conceptual framework. Cozzens, Thakur and their colleagues have done a service to anyone interested in pursuing the empirical and theoretical analysis of innovation and inequality.

For these authors, income distribution is only one part of the puzzle. They observe that inequalities are also part of social, ethnic, and gender cleavages in society. Frances Stewart, from Oxford University, introduced the notion of horizontal inequalities or inequalities at the social group level (for instance, across ethnic groups or genders). She developed the concept to contrast vertical inequalities or inequalities operating at the individual level (such as household income or wealth). The authors of this book borrow Stewart’s concept and pay attention to horizontal inequalities in the technologies they examine and observe that new technologies enter marketplaces that are already configured under historical forms of exclusion. A dramatic example is the lack of access to recombinant insulin in the U.S., because it is expensive and minorities are less likely to have health insurance (see Table 3.1 in p. 80).[ii] Another example is how innovation opens opportunities for entrepreneurs but closes them for women in cultures that systematically exclude women from entrepreneurial activities.

Another key concept is that of complementary assets. A poignant example is the failure of recombinant insulin to reach poor patients in Mozambique who are sent home with old medicine even though insulin is subsidized by the government. The reason why doctors deny the poor the new treatment is that they don’t have the literacy and household resources (e.g. a refrigerator, a clock) necessary to preserve the shots, inject themselves periodically, and read sugar blood levels. Technologies aimed at fighting poverty require complementary assets to be already in place and in the absence of them, they fail to mitigate suffering and ultimately ameliorate inequality. Another illustration of the importance of complementary assets is given by the case of Open Source Software. This technology has a nominal price of zero; however, only individuals who have computers and the time, disposition, and resources to learn how to use open source operative systems benefit. Likewise, companies without the internal resources to adapt open software will not adopt it and remain economically tied to proprietary software.

These observations lead to two critical concepts elaborated in the book: distributional boundaries and the inequalities across technological transitions. Distributional boundaries refer to the reach of the benefits of new technologies, boundaries that could be geographic (as in urban/suburban or center/periphery) or across social cleavages or incomes levels. Standard models of technological diffusion assume the entire population will gradually adopt a new technology, but in reality the authors observe several factors intervene in limiting the scope of diffusion to certain groups. The most insidious factors are monopolies that exercise sufficient control over markets to levy high prices. In these markets, the price becomes an exclusionary barrier to diffusion. This is quite evident in the case of mobile phones (see table 5.1, p. 128) where monopolies (or oligopolies) have market power to create and maintain a distributional boundary between post-pay and high-quality for middle and high income clients and pre-pay and low-quality for poor customers. This boundary renders pre-pay plans doubly regressive because the per-minute rates are higher than post-pay and phone expenses represent a far larger percentage in poor people’s income. Another example of exclusion happens in GMOs because in some countries subsistence farmers cannot afford the prices for engineering seeds; a disadvantage that compounds to their cost and health problems as they have to use more and stronger pesticides.

A technological transition, as used here, is an inflection point in the adoption of a technology that re-shapes its distributional boundaries. When smart phones were introduced, a new market for second-hand or hand-down phones was created in Maputo; people who could not access the top technology get stuck with a sub-par system. By looking at tissue culture they find that “whether it provides benefits to small farmers as well as large ones depends crucially on public interventions in the lower-income countries in our study” (p. 190). In fact, farmers in Costa Rica enjoy much better protections compare to those in Jamaica and Mozambique because the governmental program created to support banana tissue culture was designed and implemented as an extension program aimed at disseminating know-how among small-farmers and not exclusively to large multinational-owned farms. When introducing the same technology, because of this different policy environment, the distributional boundaries were made much more extensive in Costa Rica.

This is a book devoted to present the complexity of the innovation-inequality link. The authors are generous in their descriptions, punctilious in the analysis of their case studies, and cautious and measured in their conclusions. Readers who seek an overarching theory of inequality, a simple story, or a test of causality, are bound to be disappointed. But those readers may find the highest reward from carefully reading all the case studies presented in this book, not only because of the edifying richness of the detail herein but also because they will be invited to rethink the proper way to understand and address the problem of inequality.[iii]


[i] These are clearly spelled out: “we assumed that technologies, societies, and inequalities co-evolved; that technological projects are always inherently distributional; and that the distributional aspects of individual projects and portfolios of projects are open to choice.” (p. 6)

[ii] This problem has been somewhat mitigated since the Affordable Healthcare Act entered into effect.

[iii] Kevin Risser contributed to this posting.