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Talent as an economic resource

What is the meaning of talent? With ‘talent’ we do not just mean the embodiment of ‘knowledge’ or ‘knowledge creation’. In the advocacy of the ‘Knowledge Economy’, the emphasis on talent has become a popular theme, which can be seen as the last turn in the long-standing debate on the role of knowledge in regional economic development. After the initial focus on the production of scientific of analytical knowledge in the 1980s, the focus shifted to the more applied notion of ‘innovation’ in the early 1990s. Then, the late 1990s and 2000s witnessed a growing attention for institutional and governance aspects of innovation, furthering notions such as ‘regional innovation systems’ and the ‘Triple Helix’. More recently, the debate has started to highlight the human dimension of innovation, the role of ‘people’ in the creation, use and valorisation of knowledge. By featuring the human factor, the interest in the nexus between innovation and space are connected to other ‘people’ aspects of regional development, such as demographics, migration, education, and quality of life. This leads further to the idea of ‘regional attractivity’, the extent to which the region is able to nurture, attract, retain and regain human capital in the ways as distinguished above.

‘Peopling’ the knowledge economy presents a major step forward. There is a question, however, whether it goes far enough. For sure, recent debates have adequately broadened the scope of the analysis and development perspectives. However, the overall tone and focus remain somewhat instrumental, with the overall line of reasoning somewhat unidirectional and linear. Improving the ‘people’ factor, through boosting education and regional attractivity, serve a single purpose, namely that of knowledge creation, use and valorisation. This then tends to be considered the single key, the ‘holy grail’ of successful economic development.

To be clear, we do not want to deny the pivotal role of knowledge in the economy. And we certainly underwrite the ‘people’ factor in shaping this role. What we would like to challenge, however, is to consider people merely as servants of the knowledge supply chain, or as the plain intermediaries between regional settings and innovation {Thrift}. Despite the label of ‘human capital’, people are not servants or intermediaries, but the key point of reference, the Archimedean point, for considering and developing a perspective on socio-economic development. People shape their region, or move to a region, in view of their own aspirations, preferences and abilities. They cannot insulate a regional economy from external pressures, nor can they sidestep the opportunities that arise from global flows of technology, capital, and even people. Yet, they are neither the victims nor the puppets of globalisation. They are not the passive subjects of ‘path-dependent’ regional trajectories, nor the silent witnesses of inevitable cycles of economic growth and decline.

Within the range of abilities and opportunities at hand, accordingly, local people can be the orchestrators of their own economic fate. On the short and medium terms, appropriate decisions and actions may result in ‘path shaping’. This may entail the improvement of local innovation capacities through close interaction between research centres and business clusters, the boosting of local exports through an outward orientation of local businesses, more trickle-down effects from the local affiliates of global enterprises through clever networking and anchoring strategies, or the increase in entrepreneurship through changes in school and college study and internship programmes. On the long term, smart decisions may even induce ‘path creation’, the rise of an entire new strand of economic activities and source of wealth creation. The much celebrated birth of Silicon Valley is testimony to such a new path, as are many other developments: Telecom around Oulu, Finland, hi-tech in Sophia Antipolis, S-France, “Silicon Fen”, Cambridge, UK. None of these development present fully intentional, pre-meditated outcomes, but they have all prompted by clever ideas, powerful visions, deliberate experimentation with ‘new combinations’, and the ability to learn from mistakes and to persevere.

Rather than an exchangeable resource, ‘talent’ presents a complex, context-specific regional asset. It cannot be simply grown or bought, but it can be nurtured and, perhaps more important, be encouraged and supported to nurture itself. This means that, from a regional perspective, talent is something unique and precious. It is also, importantly, multiple. Talent should include the visionary leaders, the methodical planners and managers, the inventive technicians and engineers, the creative entrepreneurs, the competent and daring venture capitalist. It is not just talent which a region needs, but an ‘ecology of talent’ {}. And this ecology should not only draw on conventional career paths, but also explore and tap alternatives. So, different segments of the local population, opportunities for immigration, novel approaches to education, in combination with work (experience), etc. etc. can all serve to nurture talent.