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General Purpose Technologies "Engines of Growth?"

  • Timothy F. Bresnahan
  • Manuel Trajtenberg

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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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 4148.

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Date of creation: Aug 1992
Date of revision:
Publication status: published as Journal of Econometrics, Annals of Econometrics, vol. 65, no. 1, pp. 83-108 1995
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:4148
Note: PR
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  1. 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.
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