Around three years ago the Clusters3 project was launched in Bilbao under the European Commission’s Interreg Europe programme. Back in 2016 smart specialisation strategies were starting to be implemented for the first time across European regions, and the project was designed to explore and improve the key role that cluster policy plays in these strategies. Policies supporting clusters and collaborative networks are widespread but very heterogeneous, and there is large potential for peer learning that can improve their implementation and consequent impacts on regional competitiveness.
After two years of experience exchange and learning among the 9 partners – taking on board issues such as policy design, cluster internationalisation, evaluation and monitoring, inter-cluster collaboration, capacity building, industrial transformation and the roles of universities in clusters – the last year has seen each partner build and start to implement an action plan to integrate some of the learnings into their own policy practice. Last week our last workshop in Debrecen, Hungary, provided an opportunity to share progress with those action plans and reflect on the challenges that each is facing.
It was particularly interesting to observe how agendas have changed since the inception of the project and the initial debates in Bilbao. While the broad range of themes that the project set out to explore are all reflected in some sense across the different action plans, there is a notable focus on four areas that appear to be consistently important.
- The dynamic cluster mapping and analysis of regional strengths is a focus across several of the plans. This reflects, I think, the changing nature of our regional economies, which inevitably impacts on the boundaries between clusters. It demands more sophisticated and dynamic policy intelligence (creating new data needs), to effectively align cluster policies with the entrepreneurial discovery shaping regions’ smart specialisation strategies.
- It is clear that challenges of monitoring and evaluating are present in the minds of all partners, and several actions are oriented explicitly to designing and implementing new evaluation frameworks. There are variations in approaches that reflect both specific context and the weight given to demonstrating policy impact or fostering wider learning within cluster management organisations. There is also acknowledgement that evaluating cluster policies is no easy task, as reflected in long-term initiatives such as the working group established by TCI Network.
- As might be expected, building capacity among cluster management organisations is a particularly strong feature in the plans of partners at the earlier stages of cluster policy development. However, that issues of capacity building are also present in the action plans of regions such as the Basque Country that have a long experience with cluster policy, highlights the ‘life-long’ nature of training and support for cluster practitioners.
- The final area present in most action plans is that of cluster internationalisation. While the specific purpose, focus and process is different in each plan, the common thread is recognition of the need to promote international openness as a core feature of the cluster policy, reflecting the position of regional clusters in global innovation networks and value chains.
We also discussed the difficulties that partners were having in implementing their action plans, raising recurrent issues such as the challenges of securing finance for specific actions, of navigating political cycles and multi-level governance dynamics across administrations, and of working within the Interreg programme rules. There was also a fascinating discussion on the challenges implied by the language of clusters and the psychology of collaboration, but that is a theme for another blog!
I left Debrecen with a very positive feeling of having been a privileged observer of deep-rooted policy learning in action. It was impressive to see how the experiences that were shared at previous workshops have influenced others and are resulting in concrete changes in how each region is doing cluster policy and in the behaviours of regional stakeholders. A great example of how European cooperation can facilitate upgrading across the board, among places already well advanced with their cluster policies and those just starting out.
In this regard, a comment from one of my colleagues summed it up neatly in the context of some mind puzzles that we encountered at the Agora Science Centre in Debrecen. This type of learning happens when you reset your minds, opening them up them like children are able to. In particular, deep policy learning needs minds open to the possibility that others, who may not have the specific experience of an issue that you have, have different kinds of experience that can offer insights and change your own ways of thinking.
The Clusters3 journey has not quite ended. Implementation of the action plans continues in each region, and a final conference is being planned to share the learnings from the project for the autumn, probably to coincide with TCI Network’s annual global conference on clusters in Antwerp. That will be the start, I am sure, of many new collaborative learning journeys.