Beyond the fetishism of the extraordinary – IfL studies innovative companies in the Global East/South

Airport residential area, a suburb close to the business district in Accra, Ghana. © Koby Scratch

Being part of the Collaborative Research Centre (SFB) 1199 Processes of Spatialization under the Global Condition, a small team at IfL has started working on innovative technology enterprises in peripheralized regions. Whereas previous research at IfL focused on innovative companies – so-called Hidden Champions – located outside of agglomerations within Germany, for the new project we have switched our research interest to “ordinary” locations in Sub-Sahara Africa, the South Caucasus and Central Asia. While Thilo Lang will further head the project, we as the new doctoral students invite you to become familiar with our research agenda. Additionally, we explain our personal relation to the project.

Being part of a large-scale research centre on issues of spatialization

Building on the prior work of the SFB 1199 from its first phase (2016-2019), we argue that most economic practices have spatial ramifications. These practices either reproduce or challenge

  • spatial formats, i.e. more routinized and institutionalized patterns of spatialization that are shared intersubjectively;
  • spatial orders, defined as temporarily more stabilized sets of spatial formats that compete with other (imagined) spatial orders.

Economic agents face enabling and constraining elements stemming from the (competing) spatial formats and orders within which they are embedded. As we are interested in understanding the extent to which economic agents seek to intentionally (re-)produce and utilize spatial formats under the conditions of particular spatial orders, we will particularly focus on innovative companies with a transnational outreach. Tentatively, we assume that “global production networks” and “global city networks” might be considered as relevant spatial formats, while the “global knowledge economy” might be conceived as a relevant spatial order within our project. It is of central interest to study how economic agents deal with their position in the global knowledge economy and how they potentially produce alternative spatial orders to counterbalance or even oppose dominant imaginations of space and power.

Area view of the business district at the airport area, Accra, Ghana. In such modern building within the capital, business of the country seems to be concentrated. © Koby Scratch

How and why we study economic agents in “ordinary” locations

We are more specifically interested in analyzing

  • the actual qualities, variations and impacts of spatial ordering processes as well as opposing forces to it,
  • with whom economic agents interact; i.e. to understand how they utilize spatial formats such as networks to internationalize and drive their business forward.
  • on which scales these interactions takes places;

Through in-depth case studies based on interviews and field research, we will analyze how agents forge business relations and create knowledge in an unevenly globalized economy. Thus, we hope to gain a better understanding on the dynamics of spatialization and how agents shape, challenge and produce (imagined) spatial formats and orders.

So far, agents in these areas are often perceived as determined by external structures. As a result, they are portrayed as passive, local, powerless and receivers of rules and norms of conducting business dictated elsewhere, whether in the form of structural forces (“globalization”) or by large Transnational Corporations (TNCs) controlling such processes. We assume that economic geography so far is biased towards “global” and “world cities” or certain extraordinarily successful “clusters” and world regions, in which globally leading innovative and important TNCs are situated. We share the increasing dissatisfaction with “Territorial Innovation Models” (TIMs). These assume that agglomerations should be seen as the “natural” habitat of innovative companies due to so-called “agglomeration effects”. This narrative is rooted in the assumption that knowledge needs proximity and that power can be neatly fixated in (some) agglomerations that replace the seemingly out-fashioned spatial format of the nation-state as control nodes of the unevenly globalized economy.

Against this “fetishism of the extraordinary”, which focuses on global cities or highly innovative clusters such as Silicon Valley (to the detriment of settlements/areas that are not) and on the large Transnational Corporations (to the detriment of other transnationally operating companies), our research examines companies located in places, which we want to provisionally re-imagine as “ordinary”: so as to deliberately complicate widespread systems of classification that juxtapose the center to the periphery, the urban to the rural, the global to the local etc.

Area view of the Markola Market in Accra, Ghana. Colonial architecture meets modern and traditional practices of business. © Koby Scratch

The unsettling and enabling propositions of a post-colonial angle

While certain economic geographers confidently assume universal applicability of their models and theories, a post-colonial angle is skeptical about its conditions of possibility in the absence of a truly universal dialogue. Other parts of the world, so far, are doomed to simply “test” the allegedly universal theories developed predominantly in the Global North. We want to discuss the need of economic geography to be subjected to post-colonial scrutiny. Therefore, we are curious if our findings might pave a way of theory-generation that does not confine itself to a contribution to the “area” we analyze. We want to ask to what extent

  • dominant approaches are aware of difference and diversity;
  • a method of difference might be able to decenter universalizing models and theories originating from the Global North, by opening up narratives of success defined anew;
  • our transregional focus opens a discussion on the conditions of theory-generation in economic geography.

In the likely absence of the conditions of possibility of a (potentially) universality-generating discourse, we deem it crucial to use existing, and establish, new partnerships between IfL/SFB and researchers/institutions in our macro-regions in order to create a more equitable dialogue. We strive to write joint papers with scholars from the region. Yet, we will take into account and reflect on the manifold power dynamics at play in such an endeavor. Moreover, we will organize a workshop with partners and participants from the regions in Leipzig in 2023 in order to initiate a transregional dialogue in economic geography based on spatial dynamics emanating from “ordinary” places outside the Global North.

View toward the business district in Almaty, Kazakhstan. High-rise glass buildings reflecting translocal economic ambitions. © Markus Sattler

The manifold motivations of the research team

Marian Brainoo: moving away from the dominant view

“Third world”, “undeveloped”, “developing”, “highly indebted” and quite a few more were phrases I heard on the media, educational, economic and political platforms while growing up in Ghana, West Africa. It is easy to relate these labels with many people in the continent facing poverty, high unemployment rate, and slow economic growth with low per capita income. However, this may also lead to a one-sided story. Especially in recent times, countries in the Sub-Saharan Africa are showing records of high levels of entrepreneurship and start-ups, emergence of tech hubs with a number having collaborative partners outside the continent, booming film and music industry (Nigeria) and technology being recognized as the ‘answer’ to the uneven development in the region. For a diverse and complex region like the sub-Saharan Africa, there is much to be known. Though entrepreneurship has been on the increase in the continent, there is less known of its impact on the region and the region’s impact or effect on entrepreneurship and innovation.

I hope the study will establish a perspective that is different from the dominant views or narration from the West but will contribute a much needed holistic picture of “ordinary places”.

Markus Sattler: Showing up existing possibilities

My interest in the South Caucasus (later on, Central Asia) has started with a volunteer year in Tbilisi 10 years ago. While studying at university, however, I became disenchanted realizing how large strata of social science, think-tanks and practitioners related to the region. Most engagement circled around topics, which portrayed the Caucasus/Central Asia as a “dysfunctional periphery” in perpetual trouble: not only spatially „in-between“ regional powers but also temporally „in-between“ modernity (associated with civic nationalism, market economy, liberal democracy) and tradition (ethnic nationalism, informal economy, dysfunctional democracy/autocracy).

View from mountaineous Khevsureti, Georgia. Outside Tbilisi, tourism so far is seen as the main potential driver for economic development. © Markus Sattler

Skeptical of a vocabulary that takes as its point of departure unrealistic and/or undesirable ideal types against which to compare and devalue all deviating forms of “getting things done”, I hope that our analysis will show a more multifaceted picture of (economic) governance in and beyond the region. This interest in diversity might be a first step in relating to the region anew. It hopefully opens up (already existing) possibilities that social science had often foreclosed by relegating agents to placeholders of structures.

Thilo Lang: Researching spatial entrepreneurs in the context of a highly uneven and injust world economy

With this project, we have the opportunity to move our research to a global scale in a critical perspective. While one of our main results from the “Peripheral but Global”-project is that there is practically nothing like periphery in economic terms in Germany, we are now looking into the practices of knowledge generation, firm growth and location decisions of innovative economic actors in some of the most disadvantaged regions in the world. How do they operate their business under the conditions of being seemingly very distanced from technological advancement, modern infrastructures, global financing, political protectionism and market power? How do they relate to the power imbalances of the global economic system and what stories can they tell about their paths to economic wellbeing and internationalising their business?

I am extremely curious what cases we will find and how we can relate them to the actual debates within the SFB as well as within a currently emerging de-colonial economic geography.

Marian Augustina Brainoo studied economics specialising in innovation and change. She is interested in entrepreneurship and innovation studies in sub-Saharan Africa. Since 2020, she is working at the IfL.

Markus Sattler studied political science, geography and International Relations in Bremen, Berlin and Potsdam. He is mainly interested in the contested economies of the “Global East”. Since 2020, he is working at the IfL.

Thilo Lang studied urban and regional planning and did a PhD in geography. He heads the department „Regional Geographies of Europe“ at IfL since 2011 and coordinates the research area „Multiple Geographies of Regional and Local Development“.

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