Is the essence of a cluster physical proximity or, given broadband Internet and associated communications platforms, is it possible to create virtual clusters ?
The EU needs clusters of excellence
Jiri Plecity, a member of the Cabinet of Günter Verheugen
For Jiri Plecity, a member of the Cabinet of Günter Verheugen, the Vice-President of the European Commission in charge of Enterprise and Industry, it is important to take a pragmatic approach, allowing for both possibilities. While direct personal contact is important in prompting innovation, new technologies can add value to communication and spur interactions.
“Our observation is that there are opportunities to be missed if you don't encourage clusters to communicate and build on synergies with other excellent clusters or business and research partners worldwide,” Plecity said in conversation with fellow experts at an April 2008 conference on cluster policy organised by R&D news service Science|Business.
Another cause for pragmatism is that simply forcing clusters to work together may not be the best way to encourage excellence. “You have to ask, what is the right degree of incentive for cooperation between clusters - because without healthy competition, you do not get excellence,” said Plecity.
However, he noted, some of the largest businesses now recognise there are occasions when cooperation, joint ventures, or exchanging technologies with rivals can improve the competitiveness of both parties. An example is the collaboration between the Asian electronics giants Samsung of South Korea and Sony of Japan. The two got together in 2001 to work on the development of memory sticks and by 2006 were setting up a $2 billion joint venture to manufacture liquid crystal displays.
“Similarly, if there is a good argument for cooperation, clusters will cooperate - if not they won't,” said Plecity. Or, there may be one-to-one links between two companies in different clusters to access a particular technology in the same way that companies may cooperate in some aspects of their business, while competing in others.
Seen in this light, communications networks can be a way for individual clusters to build critical mass and to strengthen networking.
At the heart of the Commission's thinking on the role that communication networks can play in supporting a ‘European Innovation Space' is the principle that national borders in Europe should not be an obstacle to interaction. Proximity will always be an advantage, noted Plecity: “The world can hardly become one big cluster. But at the same time regional cooperation alone may not provide clusters with all the ingredients they need to reach world class level.”