Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Mon Aug 16th 2010 at 5:06pm UTC

The Innovation Theorist

After a long drive up to the shores of Lake Michigan, I opened my laptop to check up on a day or so of lost e-mail, and in my in-box were a slew of messages reporting on the passing of Chris Freeman. It’s apt that I sit here writing this feeling the cool breezes off the gorgeous clear blue lake on this magnificent August day thinking back on his work and life.

Chris Freeman was one of the greatest thinkers and scholars of innovation and the dynamics of the capitalist economy. Born in 1921, the same year as my own father, Freeman not only studied capitalist innovation and dynamics, he lived them. As a young boy, he watched the world lapse into depression, he watched England be eclipsed as an economic power, and he watched the tremendous power of innovation propel post-war growth and prosperity. He saw the rise of the corporate R&D lab and the bureaucratization of innovation that Schumpeter had written about, and then he saw the surge in entrepreneurial venture capital financed innovation in the late 20th century. He witnessed firsthand the bursting forward of innovation in great bunches and bundles, pushing capitalism forward and changing its stripes as it did so. But he was never, ever a technological determinist. Throughout his work, he called attention to the complex and nuanced interplay between technology and organization in shaping both economy and society.

His impact on me was huge, not just as a thinker but as a person and a role model. He wasn’t just a scholar, he was an institution-builder and the institution he built – the Science Policy Research Unit or SPRU – helped define the field of innovation studies. He was also a key force behind the journal Research Policy, which published so many key articles and essays that shaped this field.

Freeman had a most profound influence on my work. I pulled his books off my library shelves just this past year – his work on long waves, the bundling of innovation, and the role of innovation and capitalist crises – as I was working on my latest book. He wrote articles and books packed with data and insight but always in clear, concise language. I’ve tried my best to follow a bit in his footsteps – to stand as much as I can on the shoulders of this great intellectual giant.

There is so much more I could say about his work and his influence, but right now I am remembering the first time we met. It was 20 or 25 years ago at a specialized academic conference on innovation. He was a distinguished senior scholar, and me a very junior, very beginning assistant professor. I was very nervous to approach someone whose work I had read and who was something of an idol to me – and to so many of us at the time. But I made my way over and introduced myself and tried to say something that might connect. What came out, rather awkwardly, was this: “So what, Professor Freeman, what was it exactly, that drew you to the work of Joseph Schumpeter?”

Perhaps reading my body language or understanding my own influences and thought processes better than I did myself, he smiled kindly and replied straightforwardly, “I’ve always been fond of Schumpeter, but when it comes right down to it, I was really into Marx. But in those years it was taboo to talk about Marx, so I started writing about Schumpeter and the rest is history.”

I was blown away by his honesty and candor – how he captured in that one short remark the nature of the academic enterprise, so to speak. It was one of the most important sources of advice and inspiration I would ever receive, and on so many levels. His words have stayed right at the front of my mind to be retrieved whenever needed for all those intervening years.

He will be missed but his work and influence live on.

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