What is regional inversion?
Regional inversion is a process of radical change that involves overturning the established order of territorial influence. Through regional inversion, previously lagging or less advanced regions become predominant in a national context. Lagging areas that emerge through this process eventually overshadow the influence of predominant regions.
Regional inversion is a long-term phenomenon occurring in multiple dimensions: economic, political, technological, social and cultural. It is a complex process and its effects may only become obvious after a long period of time. At first the changes may be subtle, and they might only be detected through careful examination of data and trends for the lagging and predominant regions. Later, the changes become so obvious that they are impossible to ignore.
Regional inversion is a dynamic process. Phenomena that are little noticed initially become catalysts of change later on. Those changes in turn lead to significant transformations in a region’s national standing. The cascading effects of those cumulative changes and transformations, compounded over time, then provide the platform from which regional inversion emerges.
Invention, innovation and new technologies play important roles in the process of regional inversion. They are the key to making the process of regional inversion sustainable. Regions that develop a strong base of technological and scientific creativity will very likely have strong and dynamic economies, social networks, political power and cultural resilience. Those features will in turn provide the conditions for regional inversion to occur.
Thus, a region’s innovative capacity, or its cumulative knowledge of new ideas, methods, tools and processes in various fields of science and technology, is vital if the process of regional inversion is to deepen and become sustainable (for insights on innovative capacity and its effects, please see www.innovativecapacity.com). A high level of regional innovative capacity can, for example, lead to the creation of new or previously unknown activities and industries. Those new activities can become the drivers of economic dynamism, giving the region a unique niche in the national economic order. In time, the higher levels of innovative capacity supporting those activities may allow them to develop international links, that will reinforce the region’s rising national standing.
Higher levels of innovative capacity that can support a dynamic economic platform will also translate into greater political power. Government allocations are likely to be influenced by regional achievements in technology and science, leading to greater resources for the factors that support a region’s innovative capacity. A higher level of innovative capacity that promotes new activities and economic expansion may, for example, attract substantial migration. As the resulting increase in the region’s population creates a larger voting base, greater political representation at the national level will occur. Greater political influence can in turn lead to increased allocations of government resources, in such aspects as research, education and infrastructure. Those allocations will typically make a region more attractive, economically and demographically, thereby compounding the process.
Infrastructure, in both its tangible and intangible forms, also plays a very important role in the process of regional inversion. Tangible or physical infrastructure is fundamental for a region to develop a strong base of technological and scientific creativity, and to support all the economic, social and cultural activities that will help it to rise in the national order of influence. Educational infrastructure, in particular, is vital to generate and reproduce the kind of creativity that leads to a strong technological base.
The intangible infrastructure is the region’s knowledge networks in all their social, economic, political and organizational dimensions. This kind of infrastructure is fundamental for raising a region’s innovative capacity. It is also very important to sustain the communities of creativity and talent that will generate new technologies and, ultimately, induce the creation of new economic, educational and social activities. The intangible infrastructure is closely connected to a region’s educational system and the kind of access it provides to learning and creativity.
Educational access plays an important role in the process of regional inversion. The massification of education, in particular, is a major support of regional inversion, as it opens up access to resources directly connected with learning, creativity, invention and innovation. Massification, particularly in the area of public higher education, is crucial if a region is to build up the platform of skills, talents and creativity needed to spawn new activities and support regional inversion.
The massification of higher education must preserve quality, however. This crucial aspect can be accomplished by creating a system of institutional tiers, with correspondingly different levels of access. One of the tiers of the system may, for example, be very open and provide broad access. Another tier may then be more selective, providing both general and basic professional education. The most selective tier of the system would then target advanced graduate and professional education, along with state-of-the-art research in all fields. This multiple-tier system may expand access substantially while preserving quality standards. The broad access and quality it can provide are crucial in making regional inversion sustainable.
It is possible for regional inversion to be part of a larger process of paradigm shift (for insights on this aspect, please see www.technocapitalism.com). A paradigm shift involves phenomena that contribute to radical change in various economic, social, political and institutional dimensions. Altogether, those phenomena may break with paths set in previous eras and historical periods. Regional inversion can be one of those phenomena. It can manifest in geographical space the forces that are at the core of a paradigm shift.
Regional inversion has been most noticeable in the rise of the American Sunbelt.
A rapid process of change overturned the economic, technological, political and social predominance of the Northeastern and Midwestern states in the short span of four decades. Parts of the United States that had been regarded as peripheral, lagging or backward not long before thereby became the most prominent sources of economic change, new technologies, political power and cultural creativity.
Within the American Sunbelt, states such as California, Texas and Florida became the locomotives of change that propelled regional inversion. In those three states local areas such as the southern California megalopolis, the San Francisco metropolitan area and Silicon Valley, the Austin-Dallas-Houston triangle, and the southeastern and central Florida metropolitan regions played important roles. Other Sunbelt states that played important supportive roles were Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, Arizona and Georgia. A third tier of less dynamic but nevertheless significant Sunbelt states supported the process. Even that third tier of Sunbelt states grew faster than the predominant Northeastern and Midwestern states during most of the four decade-long process of regional inversion.
Some regions in other nations have shown potential for regional inversion. The southern states of Germany, the eastern Mediterranean regions of Spain, some provinces of southern France and coastal regions of China, have displayed some aspects of change associated with regional inversion. It is perhaps too early to tell, however, whether changes in those areas will lead to a full-blown process of regional inversion.
About the definition of “region”
Regional inversion can occur at different territorial scales, and the definition of what constitutes a region must therefore be kept flexible. It can, for example, refer to large sub-national areas comprising various provinces or states. This is the most common definition used by those who study geographical space. This definition would refer to a fairly large area or territory.
However, the definition can also refer to a metropolitan region. The prime area of reference would therefore be the territory of a specific metropolis, rather than large sub-national areas. In this case, regional inversion would consider the component districts of a metropolitan region and their dynamics. Metropolitan form or structure would have to be taken into account. A polycentric metropolitan structure might, for example, be more supportive of regional inversion than a monocentric one. If so, peripheral areas within the metropolitan region might find it easier to overturn the influence of central districts.
How is regional inversion different from convergence theory?
Convergence theory assumes that differences in some indicators between lagging and advanced regions will be reduced over time. This process might involve either the rise of a lagging region’s indicators or a relative decline of the advanced region’s, or both. Trade, changing labor costs, prices, or a rise of incomes in the lagging region are usually assumed to be the prime forces driving convergence.
Convergence theory is mainly concerned with interregional disparities, mostly in income and other closely related economic indicators. Regional inversion, on the other hand, involves overturning the established order of regional predominance, rather than simply converging to the level of the predominant region. Convergence might be seen as mostly incremental or evolutionary, while regional inversion is revolutionary in its scope and effects.
The scope of convergence theory is narrow. It is mostly concerned with some economic indicators, such as income, employment, trade, prices or labor costs. In contrast, the scope of regional inversion is broad, and it includes not only economic indicators, but also social, political, technological, educational and cultural factors.
The analysis of regional inversion must necessarily involve both quantitative and qualitative approaches. It is impossible to understand the many phenomena, factors and indicators involved in regional inversion without both quantitative and qualitative analyses. Convergence theory, in contrast, exclusively focuses on quantitative economic indicators. Convergence theory’s analytical scope seldom goes beyond established quantitative economic parameters and general equilibrium models, thereby excluding many factors, forces and phenomena that are crucial in deciding the dynamics of regional change.
Invention, innovation, creativity, knowledge and other intangibles play a crucial role in the process of regional inversion. These elements are typically disregarded by convergence theory in favor of conventional and more easily quantifiable economic indicators, such as prices, costs and income. Also, considerations of uncertainty, risk and behavior that are central to creativity, invention, innovation and knowledge are foreign to convergence theory, mainly because they cannot be introduced in the standard tools used in economics, such as general equilibrium models, production functions and other constructs.
Is regional inversion an endogenous process?
Although many aspects of regional inversion are endogenous to a lagging region, exogenous influences also play an important role. Support for infrastructure from a national government is, for example, essential to supplement regional allocations, since the latter are usually insufficient to provide the accumulation of infrastructure needed to sustain regional inversion. Inbound migration of highly talented individuals is another important exogenous influence that may be essential to complement the endogenous endowment of a region. Support for education and research from national governments and other external sources is also essential, given limited endogenous resources and the need to provide massive and cumulative investments in this area.
However, the most important influences in regional inversion tend to be endogenous. The development of a strong base of technological and scientific creativity in many different fields is one such influence. This base of creativity must target internal needs while seeking a national and international projection. The national and international scopes are very important, since without them it may be impossible to develop a sufficiently dynamic process of regional inversion.
Broad access to education and learning, along with a state-of-the-art knowledge and research infrastructure must also be implemented endogenously. They are essential if a strong base of technological and scientific creativity is to be established. Establishing the legal and institutional frameworks needed to protect rights to new ideas, inventions and innovations, and to provide incentives for exercising the creative talents noted above must be implemented endogenously. Note that the term implementation is used here to refer to the actual building or creation of these structures, since the ideas or concepts for their establishment may come from sources exogenous to the region.
The development of a state-of-the-art communications infrastructure to support technological creativity must also be implemented endogenously, even when substantial exogenous resources are invested. Another very important endogenous need is the development of strong communities where the region’s base of technological and scientific creativity can flourish or be supported. Such communities are often part and parcel of a region’s knowledge networks and of their social, economic and cultural dimensions. Among the values they embody are a strong appreciation of novelty, and a tolerance of failure and experimentation.
For publications on regional inversion and related topics by this author,
please see the Publications section of this website.
Copyright © Luis Suarez-Villa