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As a follow up to the ERRIN conference on “European Cluster Policy – What’s in it for the regions” that took place on 11 December 2008 at the Committee of the Regions in Brussels ( see my previous blog entry ) I did an interview in early January 2009 with Antoni Subira, who acted as moderator at that conference.

Antoni Subira was Minister of Industry, Trade and Tourism of the Catalan Government between 1989 and 2002. He was one of the pioneers in Europe in applying Porter’s cluster-based approach to boost regional economic development and competitiveness. Antoni Subira is Professor at IESE Business School in Barcelona and, among other engagements, Chairman of the Advisory Board of The Competitiveness Institute (TCI) and of the foundation Clusters and Competitiveness.

ERRIN: The recent European Cluster Communication notes that “Europe does not lack clusters, but persistent market fragmentation, weak industry-research linkages and insufficient cooperation within the EU mean that clusters in the EU do not always have the necessary critical mass and innovation capacity to sustainably face global competition and to be world-class.” How far do you agree? Is the global best the enemy of the regional good?

Prof. Subira: Advanced economic activity takes place always within clusters, and the cluster is further strengthened by the activity of its components, as they become more and more competitive. We are in front of a paradigm of competition and synergy creation working simultaneously.

Critical mass is an ill-defined concept that only gains meaning in analyzing specific and concrete instances. In a general statement I feel it is meaningless. On the other hand persistent market fragmentation is a real problem. Clusters always benefit from larger markets either by allowing them to gain volume or by permitting them further specialization and concentration of its activities, or any combination of both strategies.

So globalization is not the enemy of regional opportunities, on the contrary, wider open markets are always good for the ones that apply intelligent strategies.

ERRIN: With reference to the above, what is the best scale to work with clusters? What would be the key contribution of the regions in cluster development?

Prof. Subira: The first part of the question: “What is the best scale to work with clusters?” Seems to imply that the scale of clusters can be arbitrarily defined and in my opinion this is not true. I believe that clusters are real objects therefore they have their own dimensions and scale independently from the decisions of the public administrations acting on them. I feel that at present there is a dangerous tendency to administratively define clusters which are too large. This is due to a long list of reasons, let me give two as a sample:

  • Real clusters are rather “small” and “there are many”, requiring detailed analysis which is not easy to carry out.
  • Working with real clusters means discriminating and reinforcing the prosperous to be more prosperous and this is politically dangerous.

Defining “large clusters”, which in general are not real clusters tends to be perceived as more politically correct, therefore is a big temptation, and the consequence will be that the action on those “ large clusters” would be more and more innocuous and less and less efficient.
If my assertions were true- and I believe they are – the work on real clusters, which requires detailed analysis and discriminatory action, should be carried out at a scale that corresponds to regions (or small nations).

ERRIN: At the ERRIN Meeting there seemed to be some tension between the ‘bottom-up’ , free market model of clusters – ‘let industry get on with it’ versus the more ‘’top down’ methodological approach as supported by OECD and DG Enterprise which develop more public policy focused models of support for cluster development – including training for cluster managers. Is this a creative tension or does it indicate wider issues for cluster development? Can cluster management be taught or must it come from within the cluster?

Prof. Subira: I do not understand the equation “bottom- up” equals “free market model”. The real issue from my point of view is that if the industries, that are the atoms of a cluster, do not understand that they are a cluster – a free field of competition and synergy creation – there is not any top-down approach that can have positive and long lasting effects. This does not mean that the action of bodies like OECD or DG Enterprise cannot be useful, even extremely useful, for a policy aimed at enhancing competitiveness using the cluster methodology. In fact, I think that they have already been acting intelligently.

Finally, managing a cluster can be taught as management in general can be taught. It has its own peculiarities if we compare it with managing a business firm, but it is not the only instance of a human reality which can be managed –that is acted upon- which is not a business firm.
Definitively I think that clusters management can be taught.

ERRIN: The Cluster Communication notes that “Clusters should be open, flexible and attractive to the best talent and expertise available worldwide. Efforts at regional, national and EU level should facilitate the establishment of closer and more efficient linkages between clusters as well as with leading research institutes within Europe and abroad”.” How far do clusters rely on wider social and cultural aspects to attract talent?

Prof. Subira: If clusters were closed, rigid and unattractive, they would disappear quite soon. Healthy dynamic clusters are open and flexible and among other things attractive. The attractiveness of such a cluster generates a loop of positive feedback because the inflow of new talent enhances the competitiveness and the synergies that generate the good performance of the cluster.

Local, regional, national and supranational governments could and should make decisions to reinforce this positive feed-back loops, and naturally they should remove – as much as possible – any type of barriers that can be identified as obstacles to this positive feedback.

Besides the specific professional attractiveness of the cluster, there are other aspects that have some influence on the inflow of talent in a cluster, I refer to such things as: social openness, acceptance of people of different cultural origin, security, availability of good schooling for children, good health care system etc…

Some of these things derive from the local social attitudes and habits and so are difficult to modify rapidly, others can be modified by governmental decision and its effect on the capacity to attract talent has to be taken into account.

ERRIN: Prof. Subira, thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.

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