The history and sociology of technologies have overwhelmingly focused on the R&D phase of innovation, neglecting the international dissemination of new technologies and the ways in which their social uses have evolved. In reality, endogenous innovation represents only a relatively small share of the technologies used by a national economy, as the bulk comes from the international circulation of innovation.
This evolution of the history of technologies has limited its integration into a history aimed at analysing major changes in modern-day societies. Innovation is of limited use in explaining most historical questions. This is not at all the case with broadly disseminated technologies, whether it is in the military, the world of work or the media. Accordingly, within the economic sphere, technology transfer plays a key role, not only in the process of industrialization, but also in the development of a consumer and leisure society.
Although this topic has not been studied in depth, some preliminary analyses have been conducted abroad, essentially from an economic history perspective, giving rise first to several monographs and case studies in the 1970s and 1980s, then to consolidated essays by David J. Jeremy and Kristine Bruland, who highlighted the role of actors (multinationals, cartels and state, regional and local authorities) and vectors (men, capital, markets, technological know-how, etc.) in the transfer of technology. They demonstrated that the circulation of technologies worldwide, since the industrial revolution, has fitted into clearly defined, successive phases, characterized first by a predominance of flows from the United Kingdom to the rest of the world (1750–1880), then by the multilateralization of trade (1880–1960) and lastly by a transnational outlook (from the 1960s onwards).
In Switzerland, however, the international circulation of innovations has not been analysed systematically. A few authors have indeed taken up the question in monographs on specific companies or economic sectors, but a more in-depth, systematic assessment has never been carried out. The lack of interest shown by Swiss historiographers is all the more surprising given that technology transfer, much more than innovation, has underpinned Switzerland’s economic development, especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As a “follower” economy, Switzerland has travelled a great many paths to acquire certain technologies developed in other European countries, especially in England. The textile industry is a particularly interesting case in point, featuring study tours, industrial espionage, machine imports and the poaching of foreign technicians. Starting in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Swiss economy has managed to carve out a few technological niches in which its companies have excelled, such as colouring chemistry, pharmaceuticals, electrical engineering and milk chocolate. Even though technology transfer remains a key factor as far as imports are concerned, many Swiss producers have joined the innovation process. They have become exporters of technology, particularly through multinationals which export their know-how in the form of direct investment and licensed manufacturing.
The Swiss framework therefore lends itself to a reflection on the question of technology transfer. It enables researchers to tackle a series of problems, which transcend the history of technologies to touch on not only economic but also social and cultural evolution of Switzerland in the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. The aim of the forum is to gather together a body of original contributions making it possible to understand the various aspects of technology transfer to and from Switzerland. The following topics could be taken up.
(1) The first phase of Swiss industrialization, which was marked by massive technology transfer, poses the question of Switzerland’s ability to import new technological objects. What are the primary vectors of this technology transfer? Given the lack of advanced technological training, how did industrialists acquire the necessary technological know-how for this flow of technologies? What was the impact of the legislative vacuum with regard to the protection of inventions which persisted in Switzerland until 1888?
(2) The shift from importing to producing technologies was not the same throughout the country. Whereas the Lemanic Arc (northern shore of the Lake Geneva area) played a pioneering role in technology transfer in the field of transportation and energy throughout the nineteenth century, few companies in the region embarked on production. Technologies such as steamboats and funiculars, introduced at a later date in the eastern part of Switzerland, became major branches of production that were primarily export-oriented. How can we explain these disparities in the use of technology transfer? Were cultural blocks in French-speaking Switzerland due to the poor quality of production factors or the lack of commercial prospects? Or were these cultural blocks caused by a lack of corporate spirit and a distrust towards the industry among the elites?
(3) Technology imports and the shift to production followed a selective process. Whereas the Swiss economy was quick to transfer certain technologies, others either failed to take root or were slow to do so. This is partly due to technological causes (path dependence) or economic factors (cartels, small volume of defence spending). Yet socio-cultural factors also played a part, as in the case of opposition in certain professions to the introduction of new technologies.
(4) During the second half of the nineteenth century, the Swiss economy managed to become a leader in some technological fields, moving rapidly from the transfer of technology to innovation. How was this transition possible? What ingredients were needed to carve out high-tech production niches – capital, technological training or patent law?
(5) Prior to the First World War, most of the branches of industry which exported advanced technologies (chemicals, machines, food) had developed a multinational organizational structure for production and produced all over the world. What role did the multinationals and cartels play in the international circulation of Swiss technology? To what extent did the various forms of exports of Swiss technology further the economic development of the importing countries?
(6) From the second half of the nineteenth century onwards, state, regional and local authorities, particularly the Federal State and its public corporations, have been major players in technology transfer. In some fields, such as transportation, energy or arms, they have actively sought to import new technologies. In addition, they have facilitated the transfer of technology in various ways: by building the necessary infrastructure for certain technologies, by placing orders and thereby launching production; by ensuring customs protection for the domestic market; and by passing laws guaranteeing the safety of users and the general public. What are the characteristics of intervention by the Swiss authorities? Are they different from those of other countries?
Proposals should be sent by 15 October 2008 to the following three addresses:
firstname.lastname@example.org ; email@example.com ; firstname.lastname@example.org .
Please send a summary (maximum 1 A4 page) of the proposed contribution, as well as a brief CV. The participants selected will be informed by mid-November 2008.
Papers, which should be between 30,000 to 40,000 signs, should be sent by the end of July 2009.
The forum languages are English and French, but papers may also be sent in German. A selection of the contributions presented will be published in the review Traverse (to appear in 2010).
Pierre-Yves Donzé, Kyoto University / FNS; Cédric Humair, University of Lausanne / EPFL; Malik Mazbouri, University of Lausanne
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