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Uneven Technological Development: The Geographic Evolution of Optics Technologies in the United States, 1976-2010


While significant research has examined processes of knowledge production across space, less work has focused on understanding the dynamics of technological change within particular industries. Why do technologies emerge unevenly across space, and how does the evolution of particular knowledge trajectories enable growth in some cities, while constraining growth in others? To better understand these questions, this project uses the optics industry as a case study. Optics is the study of the behavior and transmission of light, and optics technologies have fueled breakthrough innovations in the fields of photography, medical imaging, defense and security, fiber optics and telecommunications, and many other areas. Using USPTO optics patents from 1976 to 2010 and methods drawn from social network analysis and community ecology, I map the evolution of the optics industry across time and space. I find that optics technologies evolve along distinct trajectories over time, and that those trajectories vary from one location to another. This uneven distribution of technologies has important implications for the development of cities and regions, and this research provides an important platform for future studies on the evolution of regional economies.

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