European experts share critical ingredients for supercluster success: Alberta conference

Mark Lowey
June 17, 2019

Canada’s innovation superclusters will need several critical elements apart from funding and collaboration to succeed, say experts on European clusters.

Europe has decades of experience with cluster organizations, particularly in Germany. “We know that putting the researchers together with the industry, the intermediaries, all the actors that you need in a cluster does not of itself guarantee success,” Helena Acheson, a Germany-based member of the Alberta government’s international Alberta Research and Innovation Advisory Committee told delegates at this month’s annual Alberta Innovates Inventure$ conference in Calgary.

Even before they’re operational, clusters need well-designed, professionally guided strategies, said panelist Günter Clar, former strategic director of one of Germany’s leading-edge Spitzenclusters, who participated with Acheson on a panel discussing clusters.

“The strategy provides a better decision base, which makes your investment less risky,” he said. Cluster strategies need to integrate the knowledge of the public and private sectors, cut across all companies’ application areas, and accompany the entire cluster investment until there are results, Clar said.

Germany’s cluster development required structural changes in post-secondary institutions to align with cluster goals and a new internationalization strategy for science and research.

It is not sufficient for governments funding clusters to invest only in research and innovation, Clar added. “You have to invest in education, regional development, industrial development and infrastructure.” Germany’s cluster development required structural changes in post-secondary institutions to align with cluster goals and a new internationalization strategy for science and research, he noted.

In contrast, policy and innovation groups in Canada have criticized the federal government for not having specific industrial sector and export strategies to support the superclusters, and insufficient focus on industry uptake and government procurement of technology.


Another critical element is the design and role of monitoring and evaluation, not just for the clusters themselves but also for the governments funding clusters, Acheson said.

Evaluation is more than an audit, stressed panelist Madeline Smith, head of strategy in the Institute of Design Innovation at the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland. “We want to move beyond audit, to say what do we get for that money and actually look at how can we turn valuation into learning, to feed into the next strategy process and improve what we’re doing, both on the delivery of the cluster and on the policy that surrounds it.”

But various stakeholders will have different ways of measuring success, Smith said. Governments are interested in greater diversification, competitiveness and regional benefits, while clusters tend to measure their projects based on innovation, skills development and internationalization. The solution, she noted, is to align cluster operations and government policies, which requires co-designing and collaborating on the evaluation process. “You have to engage the clusters, the companies and the policymakers in that process.”

When it comes to evaluation metrics, just adding up the economic performance of participating firms doesn’t capture the added value of the trust and social capital that comes from working collaboratively, Smith said. The process of cluster evaluation also should be used to assess whether government policy supporting the cluster is still relevant to what’s happening in the real world, she added.

And don’t wait to start evaluating, Smith cautioned, saying the process should begin as soon as the cluster starts operating, and evaluators need to be part of the cluster team. “It shouldn’t be seen as a threat. It should be seen as added value to all the partners concerned.”

Smith is a member of TCI, the global practitioners network for competiveness, clusters and innovation. TCI has developed principles to guide cluster evaluation, a set of quantitative and qualitative survey questions, and a booklet on designing cluster evaluation (available at TCI’s website).

“Governments are notoriously bad at evaluating the impacts of their ventures,” Prof. Peter Phillips, director of the Johnson Shoyama Centre for the Study of Science and Innovation Policy at the Universities of Regina and Saskatchewan, wrote in a policy brief. “The supercluster program must be properly evaluated to quell public concern that this is not an effective policy.”


Other vital elements for successful clusters include long-term engagement, tailor-made services to strengthen regional competitiveness, and excellent cluster management, said panelist Konstantin Schneider, director of the ClusterAgentur, a government-sponsored regional agency supporting cluster initiatives in Germany’s Baden-Württemberg state, ranked as Europe’s most innovative region.

A cluster should start slowly with some low-level networking projects to first build trust among the cluster partners, before moving on to highly complex innovative projects, Schneider advised.

Germany’s Heilbronn region exemplifies how clusters can meet regional needs. The region is home to 450 highly specialized auto supply companies producing products for gasoline-fueled engines—a dying industry with the transition to electric vehicles. Schneider said the ClusterAgentur responded with a program that helps companies retool to produce products for other sectors, such as medical supplies.

“You also need excellent people working in cluster management,” added Schneider, noting that the ClusterAgentur offers free training programs, coaching and offices for cluster managers.

Although Canada has six regional development agencies, none is dedicated to supporting the superclusters. However, senior federal officials told the recent RE$EARCH MONEY conference in Ottawa that government departments and agencies are aligning activities and resources to assist the superclusters.


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