Economic complexity, the Product Space and structural change


For the last few years I have been playing with and actively following the developments around the Product Space methodology and logic. It is such a powerful instrument that I use often to support my clients, but also as I try to make sense of technological change around the world. I am grateful for Ricardo Hausmann and Cesar Hidalgo and their teams in responding to my many questions, and their patience when I tried to figure out how to get my own product space server going.

Here is an image of the complete Product Space map from the Atlas of Economic Complexity page (you can also download the book from here). The image below shows where different industries are on the map. I work mainly in the blues, purples and some other colors I can cannot name on the left half of this map.

 

Beyond the great visual interfaces and interactive tools that the Harvard CID and MIT Media Labs offer, there is a great depth of knowledge and insights about how economies change. Take a look at this quote in a summary by Hidalgo and Hartmann on the OECD Insight page (the link to the main article is at the bottom of the OECD page)

“Scholars have argued that income inequality depends on a variety of factors, from an economy’s factor endowments, geography, and institutions, to its historical trajectories, changes in technology, and returns to capital. The combination of these factors should be expressed in the mix of products that a country makes. For example, colonial economies that specialised in a narrow set of agricultural or mineral products tend to have more unequal distributions of political power, human capital, and wealth. Conversely, sophisticated products, like medical imaging devices or electronic components, are typically produced in diversified economies that require more inclusive institutions. Complex industries and complex economies thrive when workers are able to contribute their creative input to the activities of firms.”

As I mainly support developing countries, this paragraph is really important to me. Perhaps this explains why I have become increasingly cynical of much of economic development practice. I find that in developing countries the governments but also international development often concentrate on value chains or sub sector support activities or private sector development strategies that focus exactly on the wrong parts of the economic system. These sectors are at the edges of the product space, with very low skill requirements and with little technology spill overs from these sectors to other parts of the economy. This focus is largely because of a belief that jobs can be created easily in these sectors (in the shorter term), instead of focusing on areas of the economy where economic complexity can be strengthened (in the longer term). It saddens me to hear of another development project, focusing “directly” on a group of firms, farmers or beneficiaries, in order to create jobs. This will not help in the longer term, even if may help in the shorter term. Often the reason offered for bypassing local stakeholders, government programs, etc are that they are “part of the problem” or “too slow”. No wonder the inequality is rising and growth is slow.

Economic complexity is a measure of the knowledge in a society that gets translated into the products it makes. The most complex products are sophisticated chemicals and machinery, whereas the least complex products are raw materials or simple agricultural products. The economic complexity of a country depends on the complexity of the products it exports. A country is considered complex if it exports not only highly complex products but also a large number of different products. To calculate the economic complexity of a country, we measure the average ubiquity of the products it exports, then the average diversity of the countries that make those products, and so forth.

To change the productive structure of an economy will take both public and private focus on building the right kinds of institutions, both formal in the sense of organizations, policies, etc. and informal institutions, in terms of trust, cooperative capability and maybe even cultural change. On a few occasions I have been accused that my focus on knowledge intensification, innovation systems and complexity only benefits the “have’s” and excludes the “have nots”.  To work with institutional or structural change you will almost certainly work with wealthier, or more powerful counterparts. Like the management of an university department, senior government officials or an entrepreneur that is trying new combinations.  My argument is that this accusation confuses target groups (those that we can work with to enable a change) with beneficiaries (those that will ultimately benefit from change). Furthermore, if we have to work with academics, scientists or pioneering entrepreneurs, we must certainly set conditions that ensure that benefits are inclusive and not exclusive. It means that the focus in development needs to shift on purpose towards enabling more responsive and forward looking institutions, institutions that lowers the costs for entrepreneurs to try new combinations, institutions that equip employees to find opportunities to contribute their knowledge, skills and creativity towards more complex and valuable economic activities.

Marcus Jenal and I have tried to contribute to this discussion with our paper about Systemic Change that was published at the end of last year. For more information, see this post on our Systemic Insight page. This is the site where we write about our thinking into how complexity thinking can be used to improve development.

Sources:

HIDALGO, C.A., HARTMANN, D., 2016 Economic complexity, institutions, and income inequality, OECD Insights, http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/economics/debate-the-issues-complexity-and-policy-making_9789264271531-e

HARTMANN, D., GUEVARA, M., JARA-FIGUEROA, C., ARISTARÁN, M. & HIDALGO, C.A. 2015. Linking Economic Complexity, Institutions and Income Inequality.

 

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