Buzz Without Being There? Communities of Practice in Context

Meric Gertler, University of Toronto

A core idea emerging from the recent geographical literature on communities of practice is the insight that geographical proximity should not be confused with relational proximity. This means that the former need not imply the latter. Equally if not more intriguing for economic geographers, it also presents the possibility that relational proximity can be achieved at a distance. While this argument makes
sense conceptually, its limits “both theoretical and empirical” have not yet been fully explored. Under what conditions should we expect relational proximity to be achieved effectively at a distance? In this paper, I suggest that the evidence accumulated thus far is still underdeveloped, drawing on a small sample of sectors and empirical settings. It is also somewhat under-theorized, lacking any systematic
attempt to identify critical determinants of relational proximity. I then review recent findings from a number of case studies in which distributed teams participating in joint problem-solving projects have attempted to engage in long-distance learning and knowledge translation, with varying degrees of success. Deterrents to effective "distanciated" learning are both logistical and institutional in nature.

The frictional effects of distance are shown to depend to some extent on the types of knowledge base supporting innovation in each case. I argue that it is through this kind of analysis that we might begin to develop more compelling answers to questions like: under what circumstances will relational proximity be stronger or weaker? What
are the conditions that facilitate long-distance circulation of knowledge, or its joint production by "distanciated" actors?


Meric S Gertler is Professor of Geography and Planning, and Goldring Chair in Canadian Studies, at the University of Toronto. He also co-directs the Program on Globalization and Regional Innovation Systems at the Munk Centre for International Studies. His research is focused on the economies of city-regions, with particular interest in the role of culture and creative activity in enhancing the innovative dynamism of urban economies in Canada, the US and Europe. He is a
Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and currently serves as Vice-Dean, Graduate Education and Research in the Faculty of Arts and Science at U of T.

Professor Gertler is co-director of a new major research project funded by SSHRC, titled “Social Dynamics of Local Economic Performance: Innovation and Creativity in City-Regions”. He has served as a consultant to many government agencies across Canada, in the United States, and in Europe.

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Eveline in de Braek

Venue: UNU-MERIT, Maastricht, 16:00 hours

Date: 08 November 2006