Thursday, 7 May 2009

Is the patent information enough for technology diffusion?

I have posted links to developed country patent offices in recent posts. The motivation is that African entrepreneurs and inventors can build on the inventions in developed countries. My last post pointed out one limitation of doing so, namely that there may be adaption costs if the technology is not well suited for Africa. Another set of costs arises not from adaption, but just adoption, so that even if the technology was ideal for Africa's circumstances there would still be expenses to learning and using it.

A technology's tacitness can raise adoption expenses. It means that the information used in the technology is not written down. A stricter definition is that the information could not possibly be written down. In the first definition could fall difficulties such as an incomplete patent specification; in the second definition lies problems such as the practical inability in a reasonable time period to fully specify all the operational requirements of a system. Imagine a machine construction guide - it may never state that a power supply is required, rather being taken for granted, but if someone has never built a machine before they might wonder why their machine doesn't work despite being perfectly built according to the patent.

A second problem belonging to the "can't be written down" tacitness is that even if someone knows exactly a design they may not be able to implement it well without extensive practice. An example might be in language learning; knowing the words and grammar is great, but it can still take forever just to say the most basic sentences. Technological fitness through repetition as well as design information is required to implement the design.

Problems like the ones described tend to reduce with experience: an inventor can fill in the holes in a patent specification; they know what the designer was thinking; they are already well practised in related technologies. The importance of experience explains why research and development even in developing countries can be important in promoting growth. The idea is not to produce technologies specific for the most advanced countries, but rather to understand foreign technologies and get them to work as well as possible locally.

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