Journal of Evolutionary Economics

, Volume 28, Issue 5, pp 1005–1033 | Cite as

General purpose technologies in theory, application and controversy: a review

  • Clifford Bekar
  • Kenneth Carlaw
  • Richard LipseyEmail author
Regular Article


Distinguishing characteristics of General Purpose Technologies (GPTs) are identified and definitions discussed. Our definition includes multipurpose and single-purpose technologies, defining them according to their micro-technological characteristics, not their macro-economic effects. Identifying technologies as GPTs requires recognizing their evolutionary nature, and accepting possible uncertainties concerning marginal cases. Many of the existing ‘tests’ of whether particular technologies are GPTs are based on misunderstandings either of what GPT theory predicts or what such tests can establish. The development of formal GPT theories is outlined, showing that only the early theories predicted the inevitability of GPT-induced showdown and surges. More recent GPT theories, designed to model the characteristics of GPTs, do not imply the necessity of specific macro effects. We show that GPTs can rejuvenate the growth process without causing slowdowns or surges. We conclude that existing criticisms of GPT theory can be resolved and that the concept remains useful for economic theory.


General purpose technologies Technological change Patents Slowdowns Surges Growth theories Productivity 

JEL classsification

N00 O30 O33 O40 O41 


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Lewis and Clark UniversityPortlandUSA
  2. 2.University of British Columbia – OkanaganKelownaCanada
  3. 3.Simon Fraser UniversityNorth VancouverCanada

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