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Knowledge Economy and Competitiveness: Economic Trajectories of French Cities Since the 1960s

Fabien Paulus and Céline Vacchiani-Marcuzzo


The French economy, as well as those of mature industrialized countries, is going through a period of intense change. This period is characterized by two major (and interrelated) trends: (a) a transition from the industrial age to what is more and more commonly referred to as the “age of the knowledge economy” and (b) a redrawing of economic geography at a global scale.

Numerous studies analyze the spatial impact of this change, and especially on

cities. They focus on larger cities (globalization, metropolisation) and on specific territories (industrial districts, clusters.. .). Furthermore, the attention is put on location of innovation, innovative products, firms or activities, using mostly one-dimensional indicators (patents, scientific publication.. .).

We propose to discuss the adaptation of cities to the economic change in the context of a more general pattern. More precisely we analyze the linkage between the innovation process and the structure of urban systems. The structure of urban systems is a persistent configuration of relative and relational properties differentiating cities. The major structural features shared by all city systems are hierarchical differentiation and socio-economic specialization of cities. Feedback processes can be observed, through which social and technological change occurs in every town and city, while the particular features of this propagation of innovation determine functional and size differentiation among cities. While most innovations induce smooth change, without any deep structural transformation and only slightly affect the urban hierarchy (cities are co-evolving), some of them emerge in correlated bundles, which can accelerate the hierarchisation process, or even lead to the emergence of new types of cities, via specialization.

In order to assess this theory, we lead detailed analysis of the evolution of economic specializations of French cities, especially by the observation of Knowledge-creating Services (KCS). Our aim is to show how the urban hierarchy is linked to the hierarchical process of diffusion of innovation, spatial division of labour and dynamics of competition between cities.

We built an harmonized database on French cities (aires urbaines) depending

on the proportion of employment in around 30 sectors of economic activity from the 1960s. Using factor analysis, we can finely describe the adaptation of each city to economic change, which then draw real trajectories. Furthermore, from the CLAP database (on location of firms with their employment and detailed economic activities), we lead analysis on KCS in French cities in 2008.

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