• Fraser Harper

Spatial skills dynamics…points of origin.

Viewing technological development as a social process rather than as an autonomous, transcendent, and deterministic force can be liberating (if one ignores the awesome force of social power), because it opens up a realm of freedom too long denied.1

Where do skills come from? Where and when do they come into existence? We can see the ebb and flow of skills as captured by whole occupations, and see how they have changed over the last 100 years and more2. We have seen studies of the waves of creation of new product and process innovations and how these have diffused over time and space3. Economic historians have examined the ‘family tree’ of skilled engineers coming from single workshops4 and others have traced the growth of new digital occupations5. Wider ranging studies have looked at the pattern of global development over time and examined the positions of advantage some countries hold over others6.

But few studies have managed to pinpoint the birthplace of a skill set which has then driven a technology and a new way of doing business.

Understanding the process, the timescale and the location of skill formation is important in being able to understand how to respond to the challenges and opportunities created by the application of a new technology. Undertaking the painstaking work to piece together detailed analyses of how a technology is adopted and then used is both difficult and time consuming7. More recent studies have gone down the same detailed route – such as the application of AI8 – and broken down the innovation to the point of the impact on a work activity. This route helps to view of how a technology might be applied and used, but not necessarily where and when.

Answers to the ‘where’ question can be helped by looking at the innovation process and the point where an idea becomes a reality and moves around an economy and potentially across the world9. Over time, the location of the innovation process for fundamental (platform) breakthroughs has been challenged, primarily by the growth of universities and their significant role in developing new ideas and spinning them out in new businesseses10. Major corporate laboratories have also acted as incubators for many new businesses11. Research-intensive industries like IT hardware, health/life sciences and engineering tend to be co-located with major corporate labs and universities, while other high-growth technology businesses in, say, software can be located almost anywhere. One indicator of the geography of skill creation is to look at where commercial research is taking place and where multiple research centres are based. These clusters12 are seen as additive to a specific workplace where research is being undertaken, as they have around them an ‘ecosystem’ of skills and resources. In the UK, the geography of R&D Tax Credit claims is highly skewed to only two regions (South East and East of England) and London13 where 77% of the support is devoted. It would be reasonable to expect that these same regions would be at the centre of new skills formation, and a survey of a cohort of companies in receipt of R&D Tax Credit might prove a useful way to indicate future skills requirements as they emerge. These data can be matched with the on-line job advert postings data sources now widely used to scan for new and emerging skills14.

But even when the ‘where’ of new skills is identified, how those skills are then integrated and made sustainable within a range of occupations is very much dependent on an organisation’s values and overall design philosophy15.


  1. Noble, D.F. (1984) Forces of Production. A Social History of Industrial Automation. Oxford University Press. 409 pages

  2. Hutchinson, R. (2017) The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. The story of Britain through its census since 1801. Little, Brown. 340 pages; for more formal analyses see: Wyatt, I.D. and Hecker, D.E. (2006) “Occupational changes during the 20th century”, Monthly Labour Review, 129 (3), 35-57; and, Hicks, J. and Allen, G. (1999) A century of change: trends in UK statistics since 1900. House of Commons Library 99/111. 21st December 1999. 34 pages

  3. Freeman, C.; Clark, J. and Soete, L. (1982) Unemployment and Technical Innovation. A study of long waves and economic development. Frances Pinter. 214 pages. See in particular: Table 3.1 List of innovations as reported in Jewkes, Sawers and Stillerman, pages 48-49; and, Table 6.5 Diffusion of micro-electronic technology through the economy: an illustrative table, page 123

  4. Waller, D. (2016) Iron Men. How one London factory powered the industrial revolution and shaped the modern world. Anthem Press. 205 pages

  5. McWilliams, D. (2015) The Flat White Economy. How the digital economy is transforming London and other cities of the future. Duckworth Overlook. 207 pages

  6. Landes, D. S. (1998) The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. Why some are so rich and some so poor. Little, Brown. 650 pages

  7. Bell, R.M. (1972) Changing Technology and Manpower Requirements in the Engineering Industry. Engineering Industry Training Board, Watford. 101 pages. See: Diagram 11, page 48 on welding and cutting.

  8. McKinsey Global Institute (2017) A future that works: automation, employment and productivity. 148 pages – see Exhibits A – D, pages 120-123; and, Jobs lost, jobs gained: Workforce transitions in a time of automation. 160 pages – see Exhibit A, pages 140-141.

  9. Buera, F.J. and Oberfield, E. (2016) The Global Diffusion of Ideas. NBER Working Paper 21844. National Bureau of Economic Research. 69 pages.

  10. Lester, R.K. and Piore, M.J. (2004) Innovation. The Missing Dimension. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA. 223 pages. Especially Chapter 6, ‘Public Space’ and Chapter 7, ‘Universities as Public Spaces’ pages 121-147 and 148-169; Lebret, H. (2017) Start-ups and Stanford University. An analysis of the entrepreneurial activity of the Stanford community over 50 years. Stanford University. 20 pages which uses data from 5000 companies and 5000 founders.

  11. Golding, A.M. (1972) The semi-conductor industry in Britain and the United States: A case study in innovation, growth and the diffusion of technology. D.Phil. University of Sussex. Shows that 23 significant businesses where incubated within the Bell Telephone Laboratories including Texas Instruments (1953 – date of set-up), IBM (1962), and Fairchild (1957).

  12. Centre for Cities and McKinsey and Co (2014) Industrial Revolutions: Capturing the Growth Potential. Centre for Cities. 92 pages.; also see: Cleary, J. and Fichtner, A. (2007) The emerging skill needs of rapidly changing, innovation-driven economy. A report of the Ready for the Job Initiative. Prepared for the New Jersey State Employment and Training Commission. 45 pages.

  13. HMRC (no date) An evaluation of Research and Development Tax Credits. HMRC, London. 47 pages – see Figure 7: Percentage of R&D claims and cost of support by Government Office Region 2008-09, page 30.

  14. OECD and ILO (2018) Approaches to anticipating skills for the future of work. Report prepared by the ILO and OECD for the G20 Employment Working Group. 24 pages; Carnevale, A.P.; Jayasundera, T. and Repnikov, D. (2014) Understanding online jobs ads data. A Technical Report. Center of Education and the Workforce, Georgetown University. 28 pages; and, Harper, R. (2012) “The collection and analysis of job advertisements: a review of research methodology”, Library and Information Research, 36 (112), 29-54

  15. Cooley, M. (1980) Architect or Bee? The human/technology relationship. Hand and Brain Publications. 104 pages; Goranzon, B. et al (1982) Job design and automation in Sweden. Skills and computerisation. Centre for Working Life, Stockholm. 110 pages; Aguren, S.; Bredbacka, C.; Hansson, R.; Ihregren, K.; and, Karlsson, K.G. (1985) Volvo Kalmar Revisited: Ten Years of Experience – Human resources, technology and financial results. Efficiency and Participation Development Council, Stockholm. 107 pages; and, Norstedt, J-P. and Aguren, S. (1973) The Saab-Scania Report. Experiment with modified work organisations and work forms. Final Report. The Swedish Employers’ Confederation, Stockholm. 50 pages.

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