Dynamics of knowledge base complexity: An inquiry into oil producing countries’ struggle to build innovation capabilities

Ali Maleki

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


According to conventional wisdom, the petroleum industry is classified as a ‘resource based’ and ‘mature’ industry. It is subject to the ‘resource curse’ thesis, exhausted of ‘technological opportunities’ with limited capacity for knowledge based economic growth. This study questions the adequacy of this line of reasoning. Exploring the technological complexity of the sector, a complementary argument is presented. We show that the sector has recently experienced a surge in ‘technological opportunities’. However the ‘systemic complexity of the knowledge base’ has constrained many oil producing countries’ enjoyment of these opportunities. This view highlights the role of dynamics of knowledge base complexity as an important ‘cognitive’ barrier for building innovation capabilities in endowed countries. This study is based on the extension of a ‘Sectoral Innovation Systems’ approach, highlighting the role of technological regimes in catch-up possibilities and strategies. Knowledge base complexity is explored as an under-researched element of technological regimes. The research contributes in three ways. First, it introduces a dynamic and three-dimensional view of knowledge base complexity at the conceptual level, and hypothesizes its implication for patterns of innovation and catch-up processes. Second, a quantitative methodology is developed to examine the proposed hypotheses. Third, the conceptual and methodological suggestions are empirically examined in the context of upstream petroleum industry. The findings propose that the sector has gone through phases of transformation and reconfiguration. The sector’s technological regime over the most recent period experienced high opportunities combined with rising systemic complexity of the knowledge base. We show that this trend in technological regimes is associated with shift of the sector from Schumpeter Mark I to II and with the emergence of major Integrated Service Companies as new system integrators coping with rising systemic complexity. We also observe that rising systemic complexity is associated with slow down and halt of geographical dispersion of innovation. The sector-wide cumulativeness stemming from systemic complexity creates high cognitive barriers to entry for latecomers. The very scarce examples of catch-up in a few advanced oil producing countries suggest that high innovation opportunities in complex industries are open mostly to countries with both advanced national innovation systems and accumulated production experience. For latecomer countries to benefit, their industrial policy needs to cope with increasing systemic complexity, mitigating its coordination costs and facilitating the integration of distributed catch-up processes. This highlights the key role of ‘late comer systems integrators’ for successful catch-up.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Edinburgh
  • Stewart, James, Supervisor
  • Wield, David, Supervisor
  • Rosiello, Alessandro, Supervisor
Publication statusPublished - 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • knowledge base
  • complexity
  • Sectoral Innovation Systems
  • petroleum
  • catch-up
  • knowledge governance


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