About Dr- Jörg Meyer-Stamer

About the golden thread of a change agent: Some reflections about Dr. Jörg Meyer-Stamer´s career from 1989 to 2009

This following summary about the professional life of Dr. Jörg Meyer-Stamer has been written as an introduction for a book to his 50th birthday (see “JMS publications”).  We also did a podcast with him about his career just 5 months before his sudden death (see “Podcasts”).

Jörg’s career and spheres of interest that he had worked on from 1988 to 1989 were manifold, his output was amazing. Jörg’s inquisitive nature and search for connectivity in a range of diverse subjects all seemed to have had influenced his opinions and attitudes and provoked the unusual and sometimes controversial questions regarding economic development and structural change processes. This desire to learn and grow has not been confined to his academic and business career, but seems to have influenced him personally in his professional career.

Looking through his publications, we searched for a golden thread that would give an insight into the evolution of his thought and practice. This was easier said than done, as being a driver and influencer of change requires the ability to take different perspectives and to be open-minded about different perceived realities, but, at the same time, not to get lost in one point of view or to settle down and stay in the “comfort zone”. Jörg loved the expression “comfort zone”. He invariably used the phrase as an expression for stagnation of change. The comfort zone was not a place Jörg felt comfortable in. In his birthday-book as well as in the condolence book many colleagues expressed their respect for him on account of his ability to encourage new discussions, to force others to reflect on the status quo, and to look deeper into realities that, from a scientific and theoretical perspective, do not provide many more answers. Jörg had this ability to look deeper. He was a change agent for many of his colleagues and clients. Challenging himself and his colleagues to keep moving and questioning seemed to be the initial golden thread and probably fits the description of “perpetual enquiry”

The second thread was his way of being a provocative thinker. Although some people had difficulties with the continuous challenges with which Jörg confronted his colleagues, and occasionally his customers, for us as the scholar network colleagues and friends of Jörg, it was rooted in a highly creative character with an intrinsic motivation to understand better and to contribute with new and innovative ideas, patching and re-configuring old insights into new and further developed innovative formats and products. Contributors to this scholarship and other colleagues likewise had been challenged and usually inspired by his enthusiasm for the work he was doing. Many of those who have had the chance to cycle with him through the Ruhr Valley know what we mean by this enthusiasm. This second golden thread seems to earn the title of “disruptive innovation”.

A third thread we identified is the interest that Jörg had in sharing his knowledge and in networking and exchanging with other experts and, for that matter, with ordinary people who had no other qualification than an enquiring mind. When he started the consultancy company mesopartner, he had already paved the way for business success with his experience and practical manual publications on the PACA approach. He nonetheless shared it with the new partners. A trait that he demonstrated also in his expert network and with more than 10,000 people who have downloaded the LED podcasts (www.ledcast.net).  For that, the third golden thread earns a South African title “Ubuntu”, which loosely translated means “I am because we are”.

In the following we have a quick look at the stages of Jörg’s career before we provide a short overview of the different topics Jörg had worked on during the last two decades. They highlight the driving change elements we mentioned above. Finally, this introduction provides a summary of the articles in this anthology and their relation with Jörg’s work.

20 years working on questions on economic development

The main problem with autobiographies is that you never know if the author, who is writing about himself, is telling the truth. In biographies you never know if the author really was able to get a relatively clear picture of the person he describes. Although knowing about the danger of misinterpretation, we try to profile the evolution of contributions to learning Jörg had made during the last two decades. It was in October 1988, when the 30-year-old Jörg started to work for the German Development Institute (GDI) in Berlin (now based in Bonn). According to our impression, it is possible to separate the description of his professional career from 1988 to his death in 2009 into 2 stages: the first 10 years in the GDI and Berlin, and the second 10 years in the INEF and during the emergence of mesopartner in Duisburg. Roughly speaking, the first 10 years were years of research and policy contributions to the international discussion on private sector development. The second decade moved very much into the analysis of practical experiences, territorial change facilitation and private business consultancy. It is today the combination of both the scientific and practical insights which make Jörg’s contributions so valuable and outstanding.

The first decade in Berlin

Let’s have a look at the first decade (October 1988 to July 1998). Jörg worked for the GDI, an institute that is still the main German think tank on development studies, providing research and consultancy for German development organizations and the Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). The listed publications from Jörg on this website provides a good overview of the topics he worked on during these years.

One dominant and pioneering theme of this time was the development of the systemic competitiveness framework. As Dirk Messner also writes in this book, it was one of the path-breaking publications of the Institute during the 1990s and a great deal of further research by the authors, including Jörg, was based on this framework. It was a truly innovative framework for the discussion on economic development promotion because it set out a contrary view to the dominant neoliberal interpretations of the Washington Consensus and Bretton Woods institutions regarding economic development promotion in developing and industrialized countries. Under the direction of Klaus Eßer, a group of young researchers, one of whom was Jörg, analyzed economic development policies in Asia and Latin America and, with the framework of systemic competitiveness, pronounced the need for more complex analysis and a more realistic picture of economic factors for development. Whereas the Washington Consensus of the World Bank and IMF promoted liberalization and deregulation as an answer to the failed import substitution policies in Latin America, the GDI and their authors provided a much more differentiated analysis of the economic reality of developing countries. To refresh memories of the grounding concept we are reprinting the English version of this article, first published in 1996 by the United Nation Commission for Latin America (CEPAL) in Spanish.

Jörg’s subsequent studies on economic development policies in Brazil, governance questions in the post-import substitution era, and the challenge of developing industrial sustainable policies in Europe and developing countries were very much linked to the discoveries of market, governance and network failures. In comparison to the simplistic neoliberal framework, it enabled a more differentiated perspective on the real challenges many countries faced at that time. And it underlined the importance of more decentralized locational policies.

Jörg’s publications in the first half of the 1990s were very much oriented towards deepening the systemic competitiveness framework with practical examples (in Brazil, Mexico, with studies by students of the GDI in different countries) and linkages with industrial policy recommendations for Europe, Germany and emerging countries. The second topic, very much associated with the former, was more intensively linked to technology, innovation and the challenges of countries and actors during radical policy changes. Jörg finished his PhD on this topic in 1995, based on case studies in Brazil. The example of  the software industry in Santa Catarina demonstrated the challenges locations and regions face under the globalization process.

More case studies followed during the 1990s on the framework of systemic competitiveness, leading to more concrete evidence and also greater understanding of this approach. In parallel to policy and case study analysis, Jörg also contributed to discussions in German technical assistance organizations like the GTZ. After the mid 1990s the systemic competitiveness framework became a model for interventions of German private sector development projects.

The second decade: Duisburg as a Junction for following new paths

Jörg seems to have changed perspectives and jobs according to his birthday. In October 1998, Jörg turned 40; he moved to Duisburg and started his work in the Institute of Development and Peace (INEF). In the “Meso-Project”, Jörg, invited experts from South Korea and Chile (one of them was Claudio Maggi) to analyze structural policies in the German region of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). To invite people from developing countries to advise a developed country illustrates the un-orthodox and innovative form of Jörg’s thinking. At the same time it shows that learning is not necessarily unidirectional, but rather that industrialized countries may also learn form the global south.

One of Jörg’s publications which came out of this project was entitled “Meso laboratory NRW” (in 2000). Jörg used the title to demonstrate the high number of institutional and government-related activities in the NRW region and their positive and overlapping aspects. Nonetheless, the title can also be used as a synonym for the experimental orientation of the research Meso-project itself. Additionally, Jörg, Dirk Messner and Frank Wältring, together with experts from the Institute of Development Studies, IDS, worked on another project on new governance questions in clusters and global value chains (GVCs).

Several publications which came out of these projects demonstrated Jörg’s ability to contribute his diverse expertise to different discussions related to clusters, locational policies and governance aspects. This combination of factors, especially the Meso-project and burgeoning consultancy work that evolved during this time, seem to have had a great impact on and been a catalyst for his future career orientation and, in a way, for mesopartner.

Then came the Hexagon. The “Hexagon of Local Economic Development” demonstrated Jörg’s ability to convert his own learning about a new topic into a structured framework. It was used mainly in LED training to articulate the different viewpoints on LED and make them understandable. It is a product that is based very much on Jörg’s experiences in NRW and in different countries. The seeds of the PACA approach were planted during the time when Jörg started his consultancy in Mafra in Brazil.

During the years between 1998 and 2003, Jörg moved more and more towards topics related to cluster, locational and local policies and practice. He stimulated the discussion in an encouraging way in NRW, in German technical assistance (SME and Cluster publications for practitioners and policy makers) and in the field of research through further case studies, local and regional policy recommendations, inclusion of governance aspects and a revision of the systemic competitiveness approach (2005). The latter included the learning experiences Jörg had acquired over the previous years and this enabled the framework to be used as a practical instrument for consultancy and learning at the local and regional level.

At the end of the year 2000, Jörg’s territorial attention switched from South America, which in his case was preferentially Brazil, to other continents. At that time he started his Email reports in his mother-tongue to inform some of his fellow country people about his travels. At first he called his reports ironically “In the Far East” (German: “Im Fernen Osten”) and entertainingly described his travel experiences to Southeast Asia. After that he used the title “Reports from far away” (“Berichte von weit weg”) to share his experiences in places all over the world. He loves to describe in these reports the different forms of traffic and transport to explain the differences of development in different countries.[1] The reports show how Jörg always uses his observations as a source of his learning process. Many of the exposed ideas he then takes as a stimulus for more profound academic reflection in papers and books. Anyway, the reports are great, reveal Jörg’s terrific sense of humor, and they are worth putting in a proper publication.

10-10-5: The move towards mesopartner

The move towards focusing more and more on consultancy on LED and other topics seems to have been an inevitable path that emerged from the many learning experiences Jörg discovered in his practical work and it was seemingly also influenced to a certain extent by respect for creative practitioners in both businesses and private support institutions. From 2001 onwards, Jörg started to focus mainly on consultancy work before he formally founded mesopartner in 2003, some 5 years after starting his work in INEF. Some colleagues saw Jörg’s decision as a move away from scientific work, a view not shared by Jörg himself. This it seems was the decision to become a businessman.

Looking back at the discussions Jörg had  stimulated between 2003 and 2009, it becomes obvious that the key words and context of his research work had not changed that much. What did change was the content and the main target group for whom he worked.  What did not change until his death was Jörg’s prolific contribution to the public debate on economic development via publications and documentations of experiences - several book publications and article contributions during the last years. They clearly demonstrate that he did not lost his academic grounding or focus on earlier topics like technology and innovation as well as industrial policies. His capacity to reflect on experiences, putting them into structure, documenting them and making a product out of it, was a capacity that has very much contributed to the emergence of mesopartner. Out of the NRW Meso-project Jörg started to design several LED study tours (mainly together with Michael Giese) using innovative structural change projects in the region as learning examples for GTZ staff and experts from other countries. The objective was not to demonstrate possible blueprint examples but to reflect on creative formats to inspire and promote LED at the implementation and policy level.

With the foundation of mesopartner in conjunction with Christian Schoen and Ulrich Harmes-Liedtke in 2003, Jörg increased the outreach of his work and further tools were developed jointly. While the first 2 years were very much based on the dissemination of the PACA methodology, mesopartner moved towards a more process-oriented approach with the development of further tools, like Genesis[2] and Compass[3]. Without underestimating the work of all the other mesopartners (including the ones who joined the team later like Frank Wältring, Shawn Cunningham and Colin Mitchell) Jörg was still the “guru” among them. Although we know that he did not like the expression being applied to himself, we use it here with a positive connotation, in the sense it is used in Wikipedia, to mean “…a person who is regarded as having great knowledge, wisdom and authority in a certain area, and uses it to guide others.” The capacity to write in a very effective manner, to structure thoughts and put them into a new order, and the way Jörg incorporated new scientific publications and thought from diverse fields into his own writing was and still is impressive. From a practical perspective, it provided a background that takes the “meat” of scientific discussions and used it to transform expert thought in the field of private sector promotion.

2nd part: Looking back to the future: Contributions of the articles in relation to Jörg’s work

Most of the scholar network colleagues have worked with Jörg during the last 20 years and during the period we have outlined above. All of them and additional friends and colleagues were interested to contribute to this scholarship. In line with the great legacy Jörg left behind, this scholarship project will continue trying to make contributions in the area of economic development and to keep Jörgs´ spirit alive.

[1] In that sense Jörg contributed also to the blog of Dani Rodrik with whom Jörg not only shares a critical view on the Washington Consensus, but who also uses the traffic analogy: “A society is like a web and pulling on one strand doesn't reveal all the interconnections. Too many who give advice seem only to focus on their particular strand.” (http://rodrik.typepad.com/dani_rodriks_weblog/2008/01/whats-traffic-i.html).


[2] Developed by Colin Mitchell and shaped by Jörg in the context of a GTZ Program in South Africa.


[3] Inspired by the Scottish Enterprise and the work of Grant MacKenzie.