Europe INNOVA, a Commission-funded initiative to support innovation, has identified a range of industries where competitive clusters exist across Europe. These include the automobile sector and the biotechnology, e-health, energy, ICT/optics, food/drink, space, textiles and maritime industries.
It provides overviews of each sector, with links to relevant cluster organisations. The InJection project, for example, looks at how SMEs and investors can be provided with networking opportunities in the medical devices sector.
Impact of clusters
The European Cluster Observatory estimates there are 2,000 "statistically significant" clusters group of co-located industries and services, suggesting that 38% of the European workforce is employed by companies working in clusters. However, the definition of what precisely constitutes a 'cluster' can vary.
Indeed, cluster policy approaches differ across the EU. In its 2008 Communication on clusters, the European Commission acknowledges that "one size does not fit all". Despite different approaches to supporting cluster development, clusters are fast becoming a popular means of organising industries and can be a useful tool in revitalising flagging sectors, as well as offering a framework for policy developments in research and regional policy.
According to the European Commission, Europe does not lack clusters, but market fragmentation, weak industry-research linkages and insufficient cooperation within the EU mean that clusters do not always have the necessary critical mass and innovation capacity to be world class.
Striving for excellence has become the focus of cluster policy and may result in a more business-like approach to providing aid to existing clusters. Policymakers have come to accept that not all networks of businesses and researchers are equally worthy of support. The EU has indicated that it will allow market forces to kill off ineffective clusters, and that new, dynamic clusters will be best placed to survive. "Clusters which are not working should not be kept artificially alive," according to the European Commission. Such clusters should not become a channel for subsidies which would undermine competition and even the emergence of new competitive clusters.
Excellence should be at the centre of policymaking when new cluster initiatives are being designed, and clusters must be based on knowledge hubs of international excellence and market foresight. "The challenge is to avoid a proliferation of cluster initiatives with little chance of long-term success," the Commission said in its 2008 communication on the matter.
Competitive clusters fit into a range of existing European policies, including the Small Business Act, the Lisbon Agenda, the European Research Area, and Framework Programme 7 (FP7).
Clusters are in line with the knowledge-based economy outlined in the Lisbon Partnership for Growth and Jobs, and with the mobility of researchers and investment in innovation envisaged for the European Research Area. The European Grouping on Territorial Cooperation, Lead Markets Initiative and Enterprise Europe Network are also compatible with cluster policy.
Small and medium-sized enterprises are seen as a major source of future job creation in Europe and will be central to how member states emerge from the ongoing financial crisis. However, small companies face major challenges when attempting to tap into EU funding programmes, given the time and financial resources required to apply. They can also lack the means to transform their innovations into marketable products.
Competitive clusters can provide a fertile environment in which SMEs can access research infrastructure available within universities. Small companies can also form partnerships with larger companies. This can, for example, enable a niche technology company to team up with multinational firms capable of integrating new software into existing platforms.
In addition, it also allows research institutes to tap into the dynamism offered by small firms and start-ups. Dr Bruno Sportisse, director of technology transfer and innovation at French research institute INRIA, said SMEs offer a 'quick path to market' for research institutes (EurActiv 16/4/09).
Creating awareness among of the opportunities available to the SME community can be a challenge. The European Enterprise Network is to organise an Innovation Awareness Campaign to encourage greater participation by SMEs in competitive clusters.
Another major benefit of joining clusters for SMEs is the support services that they provide. Some clusters are merely organic groups of co-located industries and research organisations which have grown up together in a particular area, often due to a specific regional advantage. However, others are 'managed' clusters, which have a central coordinating officer to ensure links are strengthened and to maximise the competitive advantage to all members of the cluster.
The European Commission and others have noted that the skills of cluster managers are not recognised and there have been calls for recognition of a professional qualification in university-industry-government relations. For SMEs and universities alike, cluster managers can offer assistance in promoting technology transfer and protecting intellectual property.
Several think-tanks have been broadly supportive of the theory behind co-locating researchers and innovators, but there has been some concern that clusters which are manufactured by governments do not respond as well to change. The Lisbon Council says clusters need to be able to adjust organically to changes in market demand: thus a biotech cluster may evolve to become a pharma or green chemicals cluster, for example.
Creating competitive clusters alone is not seen as a simple answer to all the challenges facing Europe in competing with hugely successful high-tech clusters such as Silicon Valley in the United States – which has led technological revolutions and is now turning its attention to sustainable energy.
Factors such as the size and nature of a potential market, the location of existing multinational companies, concentration of like-minded innovators, access to venture capital, and other elements of the 'innovation ecosystem' are seen as more important than a political decision to establish a cluster in a particular area. Author Richard Florida, an authority on creativity, says creative people want to be surrounded by other innovative thinkers.
It might be unwise to expect clusters to deliver solutions to all of Europe's problems, according to the Lisbon Council. Healthcare, education and business processes are seen as likely sources of future innovation, but may not be as well-suited to the product-driven model of clusters which has grown up around high-tech inventions like computer software and medical devices.
There have also been concerns that member states tend to support clusters of indigenous companies at the expense of fostering cross-border clusters, because governments have a natural preference for seeing public funds spent on home-grown industries.