The interview below is based on the findings in the report “National Cluster Programs: A Global Perspective” written for the Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED). You can download a copy here.
We also have a webinar happening on the 23rd of October, 2023 (Monday) at 13:00 CET. Sign up to join us here.
This report was written for Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) – could you provide a bit of background on what prompted the research on the global perspective of cluster programs?
In 2017, the Canadian National Innovation Supercluster Program was launched with an ambitious goal: to establish five innovation superclusters that would position Canada as a global powerhouse. These superclusters would operate within industries where Canada already held or had the potential to develop competitive advantages, aiming to become a major player on the international stage. The program’s focus encompassed Digital, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Maritime, and Food, with a specific emphasis on protein.
Under the leadership of the Minister of Innovation, the Canadian government successfully fostered collaboration with the private sector, creating a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) model. Through this model, the government pledged to match every dollar invested by the private sector in the innovation superclusters.
As the initial three-year timeline set by the government to achieve program goals drew to a close, the Innovation, Science, and Economic Development (ISED) recognized the need to assess the results and plan for the next iteration of the national innovation supercluster program. This realization led to a profound exploration of how other countries had effectively established and cultivated their own national cluster programs, as well as how emerging programs were approaching this dynamic landscape.
In the research of over 30 cluster programs worldwide for the report – what were the most exciting discoveries you made?
After interviewing key leaders and practitioners working and driving 30+ national cluster programs and an extensive research, there were three key findings I would highlight:
- There are no single best practices, but there are great examples like Denmark, Norway, France or South Korea. Context is very important and countries should understand it very well when designing their own national cluster program
- The speed of change and overall context means that countries face a very dynamic landscape, which also means that national cluster programs should look at dynamic practices when designing new programs or the next iteration of the existing program.
- Probably, the most relevant finding – and contribution – of this report, is a clear understanding of the different policy levers countries should be aware of when designing or re-designing a national cluster program. We identified 16 policy levers and created a tool, the Cluster Policy Levers Canvas, that policy makers and national cluster program leaders can use as a “navigation panel”. It allows them to see multiple program configurations depending on how they move those levers.
In the interviews and research with over 30 cluster programs worldwide, did you identify any specific challenges or obstacles commonly faced by these programs? How are they addressing these challenges?
Your question is excellent, and the depth of this topic could easily fill a book or a series of blog posts.
The primary challenge involves establishing a shared understanding among key stakeholders of what defines a cluster, particularly an innovation supercluster, and how it distinguishes itself from other programs and initiatives aimed at fostering economic growth, national competitiveness, and innovation.
The second one is understanding differentiating an innovation cluster from a nation-shaping program, which requires significant funding, a really long-term view, and I mean decades not years, and usually a vast infrastructure throughout the country. Reports like this one is a very good step to create this common understanding.
Additionally, challenges encompass aspects like securing funding, maintaining political support beyond short-term cycles, ensuring an adequate workforce, and conducting thorough evaluations of program impact. To address these challenges, countries are looking to learn from past mistakes and draw inspiration from successful case studies, such as Denmark, Spain, particularly regional cluster programs, and some Asian nations like South Korea and China. They are also emphasizing the importance of involving all key stakeholders in the program’s design process.
Financing models for superclusters are a critical aspect of their sustainability. Could you shed some light on the most innovative and effective financing models you encountered during your research?
We strongly believe that national cluster programs should be funded by governments with a minimum perspective of ten years. This provides continuity to the program. The key discussion then shifts to the allocation of these funds. The 16 levers we identified provide a comprehensive framework to assess different models. Again, context is important when deciding what could work best.
Having said that, in 2021 we published another report Cluster Business Models: Exploring Business Models in Global Innovation Clusters, where we explored in detail the different financing models out there. In a nutshell, we find that sustainable clusters tend to be more privately funded, including self-generated revenue streams.
Now, the key question for national cluster program leaders is to decide how much, if at all, the program will fund clusters. For how long, for what should the clusters use these funds, if the private sector should make an equivalent investment and in what proportion, among other criteria. But most importantly, it needs to help clusters transition from public-skewed financing models to private and self-generated financing models.
Could you offer a teaser of what attendees can expect to learn or discuss during the webinar?
Our ambition with this webinar is to shed light on some of the key elements that those involved in the design of national cluster programs and the extended cluster community should consider when designing or re-designing a national cluster program. With that in mind, we will discuss why countries need national cluster programs, the different models of national cluster programs, and showcase global case studies and best practices in designing national cluster programs. Super fun!!!
What kind of audience would benefit from joining this conversation?
We believe that this is a conversation that should bring together all the key actors involved in economic development, national competitiveness, in driving innovation at a system level, and those working hard to develop strong and successful innovation clusters. So, we hope to see a broad global audience including current leaders of national cluster programs, policymakers, politicians, cluster boards, cluster leaders, companies participating in clusters, academic faculty, innovation leaders, national agencies, and national transformation heroes. We are looking forward to having you all join the conversation.