Bridging the Gap: Socially Integrating Cross-border Regions

Cross-border territorial cooperation represents a fascinating arena for research because of its varied and evolving intricacies.  It can be viewed as a development lab where social interactions between different species are formed, or the opposite, a barrier-laden territory destined to increased failures.  I, being the optimist that I am, see it as the former rather than the latter.

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Neighbors from two or more countries sharing a common space, which generally includes living, cultural and employment dimensions experiencing complex social and economic conditions largely make up cross-border territorial cooperation. This common space comes with a border that physically is made up of rivers, walls, mountains, distance, etc.  But other “soft” barriers exist including cultural, language, mobility and heterogeneity.  This second list of barriers, if left to themselves, negatively impacts the exchanges and relationships of both populations making cross-border cooperation increasingly difficult.

To enhance territorial competitiveness and economic development, cross-border cooperation needs to evolve from free trade areas that allow the movement of persons, goods, services and capital to common spaces of cross-border governance unifying educational, commercial and government structures.  A step in the right direction is the emergence of bridging institutions to facilitate this unification process.

Excerpt from framework designed by author based on Mulgan G et al.,(2006);Moulaert, F. (2005). Nahapiet & Ghoshal, 1998; Trippl, 2006; Cooke 1998; Porter, 2000

Bridging institutions are a key feature for cross-border cooperation. They represent the platform in which a social base is first established in a cross-border region. In cross-border contexts, bridging institutions should be focalized to areas of cooperation identified within each region. In many cases, they must be stimulated in order for them to appear, and it is critical that they consist of actors within all walks of economic, social and public life. These institutions will serve to reduce the gaps between both sides of the border region and aid in the generation of social capital and social innovations leading to the development of trust, networks and a shared vision.  Once a social base exists within these bridging institutions, it will be easier for these key elements to permeate throughout the rest of society.

As per my description of bridging institutions, linking the cross-border cooperation gap, in my view, becomes a socially motivated experience involving the establishment of a social base.  This social base takes into account the role that social capital and social innovation play in the continued shaping of these competitive regions.  In a previous post (in Spanish), I have explained the analytical framework that gives shape to my use of bridging institutions to socially integrate cross-border territories.

Economic development, growth, GDP, and success are all terms we have come accustomed to hearing with regard to territorial viability. Their common denominator is that they are mostly all measured in purely economic terms. Other aspects within an economy, such as social or geographical, are numerous times neglected (Krugman 2011). I recommend focusing on these social aspects of an economy such as – social capital, social innovation, social networks, and trust as the foundations for building cross-border cooperation.

Image and concept designed by author.

Interdisciplinary literature exists to describe, understand and interpret these cross-border social relationships within other fields. This literature includes the excellent analysis and dimensions of Social Capital by Nahapiet & Ghoshal (1998) and the diverse range of definitions and practices of Social Innovation by Geoff Mulgan (2007).  I suggest bringing together these interdisciplinary approaches to enable us to answer the following questions: What is a Social Base? and What are its impacts on Economic Development and Competitiveness strategies in cross-border contexts?

Social capital is essential to the development of territorial innovation models and economic development strategies because of its intensely cooperative behavior (Nahapiet & Ghoshal 1998).   Social innovations, defined by Mulgan (2007), simply as a new set of practices, actions or services aimed at solving social needs, are, as well.

In fact, one of the barriers touched upon on Mulgan’s work on social innovation is that of relationships. He states that relationships in the form of social capital are a vital necessity for getting things done. Because of this fact social capital becomes a key component of social innovations, promoting the fact that change is coming and mobilizing it through its system of networks. This then allows us to arrive at a point for explaining that a social base is established when social innovations enhance existing social capital and when social capital develops social innovations.

These days, developing a social base seems to be essential for effective cross-border cooperation. Many promising cross-border collaboration platforms (see Supporting cross-border inter-clustering, why matter?) ultimately will rely on it. To study the social interactions within a social base is intriguing and while there are significant challenges to assessing these interactions, it is part of the process of making cross-border cooperation work. And as this is the objective of my doctoral thesis, in my next post I will detail the work I am doing together with Miren Larrea and Miren Estensoro to collect the data that is necessary to assess the impacts this social base has on cross-border competitiveness and economic development.


Daniel Covarrubias es estudiante de doctorado del Departamento de Territorio, Innovación y Clústeres de Orkestra. Es licenciado en Administración de Empresas por el Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (México) y cuenta con un Máster en Ciencias Políticas por la Texas A&M International University (EEUU) y un MBA por la Universidad de Texas, San Antonio. Su trayectoria profesional ha estado ligada al sector público, como fundador y director del Instituto para la Competitividad y el Comercio Exterior de Nuevo Laredo (México) y como director de Desarrollo Económico del Gobierno Municipal de Nuevo Laredo. En la actualidad trabaja en la investigación socio-económica dentro del área de desarrollo regional transfronterizo, sistemas de innovación regionales, clústeres y políticas públicas territoriales.

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