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General purpose technologies 'Engines of growth'?

  • Bresnahan, Timothy F.
  • Trajtenberg, M.

Whole eras of technical progress and economic growth appear to be driven by a few key technologies, which we call General Purpose Technologies (GPT's). Thus the steam engine and the electric motor may have played such a role in the past, whereas semiconductors and computers may be doing as much in our era. GPT's are characterized by pervasiveness (they are used as inputs by many downstream sectors), inherent potential for technical improvements, and innovational complementarities', meaning that the productivity of R&D in downstream sectors increases as a consequence of innovation in the GPT. Thus, as GPT's improve they spread throughout the economy, bringing about generalized productivity gains. Our analysis shows that the characteristics of GPT's imply a sort of increasing returns to scale phenomenon, and that this may have a large role to play in determining the rate of technical advance; on the other hand this phenomenon makes it difficult for a decentralized economy to fully exploit the growth opportunities offered by evolving GPT's. In particular; if the relationship between the GPT and its users is limited to arms-length market transactions, there will be "too little, too late" innovation in both sectors. Likewise, difficulties in forecasting the technological developments of the other side may lower the rate of technical advance of all sectors. Lastly, we show that the analysis of GPT's has testable implications in the context of R&D and productivity equations, that can in principle be estimated.

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Article provided by Elsevier in its journal Journal of Econometrics.

Volume (Year): 65 (1995)
Issue (Month): 1 (January)
Pages: 83-108

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Handle: RePEc:eee:econom:v:65:y:1995:i:1:p:83-108
Contact details of provider: Web page: http://www.elsevier.com/locate/jeconom

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  1. Moses Abramovitz, 1956. "Resource and Output Trends in the United States Since 1870," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number abra56-1, August.
  2. Romer, Paul M, 1986. "Increasing Returns and Long-run Growth," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 94(5), pages 1002-37, October.
  3. Moses Abramovitz, 1956. "Resource and Output Trends in the United States Since 1870," NBER Chapters, in: Resource and Output Trends in the United States Since 1870, pages 1-23 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Jaffe, Adam B, 1986. "Technological Opportunity and Spillovers of R&D: Evidence from Firms' Patents, Profits, and Market Value," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 76(5), pages 984-1001, December.
  5. Dana, Rose-Anne & Montrucchio, Luigi, 1987. "On rational dynamic strategies in infinite horizon models where agents discount the future," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 8(3), pages 497-511, September.
  6. Maskin, Eric & Tirole, Jean, 1987. "A theory of dynamic oligopoly, III : Cournot competition," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 31(4), pages 947-968, June.
  7. David, Paul A, 1990. "The Dynamo and the Computer: An Historical Perspective on the Modern Productivity Paradox," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 80(2), pages 355-61, May.
  8. Kenneth Arrow, 1962. "Economic Welfare and the Allocation of Resources for Invention," NBER Chapters, in: The Rate and Direction of Inventive Activity: Economic and Social Factors, pages 609-626 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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