Business clusters have become one of the engines driving economic development and innovation in the EU today. However, a recent conference in Brussels concluded that to compete internationally, greater emphasis must be placed on excellence and quality. A series of EU initiatives seeks to achieve this, for instance, by strengthening the link between research and industry.
Clustering together interconnected businesses, suppliers, and associated institutions in a particular field has helped companies - especially SMEs - to increase their innovativeness, efficiency and productivity. Clusters add dynamism to and create synergy within the business environment. The fact that they have been around, in one form or another, for centuries reflects the benefits they bring in terms of sharing resources and expertise. Clusters can be arranged geographically, sectorally or vertically along the supply chain.
The EU has worked to encourage their development through a number of initiatives, such as the European Cluster Observatory, which provides businesses and policy-makers with an analysis of clusters across Europe. This mapping exercise - based on a study of employment data - has identified more than 2 000 regional clusters in the EU's 27 Member States, Iceland, Israel, Norway, Switzerland and Turkey.
The Observatory, which is financed by the European Commission in the framework of its Europe INNOVA initiative, also provides information about policies and programmes relating to clusters. Furthermore, it prepares priority reports in specific themes, such as creative industries, the life sciences or eco-innovation.
There have been other initiatives. The European Cluster Alliance, for example, which was founded in September 2006 under the PRO INNO Europe initiative, is an open platform designed to maintain a permanent policy dialogue at EU level among national and regional public authorities. This policy dialogue, which aims to raise the level of excellence and efficiency of cluster policies in Europe, has been welcomed by the Competitiveness Council as an important European initiative to foster cluster co-operation.
While it is evident that the EU does not lack clusters, it needs more world-class excellence in order to compete in today's globalised world. This recognition was behind the launch of the European Commission's 2008 Communication entitled 'Towards world-class clusters in the European Union [54 KB] ', which sought to strengthen links between industry and research and help turn the 2 000 or so existing European competitiveness clusters into world-class innovation poles.
Proposals included establishing a high-level European Cluster Policy Group to explore how to best assist EU countries in supporting clusters. The policy group aimed to share intelligence about cluster policies and provided advice on how to support the emergence and growth of world-class excellence clusters in Europe.
Other proposals contained in the Communication included expanding the policy dialogue under the European Cluster Alliance and fostering transnational co-operation between cluster organisations.
As is apparent, the EU is serious about being home to world-class business clusters, and is putting into place the necessary infrastructure. More than 450 policy-makers and stakeholders recently attended the European Cluster Conference in Brussels to discuss the progress that has been made and to find out what more is being done to turn Europe's network of clusters into world-class magnets for business and innovation.
A major topic of the conference was the presentation of the European Cluster Policy Group (ECPG)'s report entitled 'A call for policy action', which recommends improved coordination between different EU initiatives in support of clusters. The report underlined again the need to focus on quality, arguing that a traditional emphasis on capacity building and compensation for poor performance should be replaced with a new invigorated emphasis on clusters with the ability and the willingness to upgrade in the face of global competition.
Clusters are catalysts of change, since they operate most often at the intersection of traditional sectors, develop and integrate cutting-edge technologies, and help companies to internationalise. The new society-driven challenges and the increased importance of research and innovation have a profound impact on European industry. This is why a more strategic approach is needed that builds upon existing efforts and explores new cluster concepts for establishing the right framework conditions for emerging industries.
European Commission Vice-President Antonio Tajani welcomed the recommendations of the Group as an important input for the preparation of the forthcoming Communication on industrial policy. "Increased global competition has raised the interest in strong clusters as hubs for boosting industrial innovation and growth. The objective of the Europe 2020 Strategy is to promote smart, sustainable and inclusive growth in Europe, and clusters are an important element of this strategy," he said.
A number of new cluster support services were also launched at the conference, the first being the Club of Cluster Managers. As professional management can make a real difference, this interactive forum is designed for cluster managers to share ideas and to open up opportunities for co-operation. Secondly, the long-awaited European Cluster Collaboration Platform was launched (see box).
The European Cluster Observatory's new website was also unveiled. The website includes improved data and functionalities related to clusters and offers a wide range of services for cluster stakeholders, such as mapping, wikis and libraries.
To be truly world-class, clusters need to be known worldwide, and able to work with universities and SMEs everywhere. Serious attention, therefore, needs to be focused on international marketing. A new EU action on promoting international cluster activities in Europe is already scheduled for early next year.
The European Cluster Collaboration Platform provides high-quality, online information and networking support for clusters. It aims to help clusters improve their performance and increase their competitiveness through the development of transnational and international co-operation. An overview of the European cluster landscape by country/region and/or sector is provided, showing not only the cluster organisations, but also their internal structure and members.
The platform also provides centralised information about European and international projects, and acts as a virtual forum where cluster organisations can post their offers. It also offers an online anonymous benchmarking facility to support the process of profiling.
The new online portal builds bridges between cluster players from the same or different sectors, the ultimate goal being to facilitate cluster co-operation, both between cluster organisations and cluster members.
'Support to Industrial Innovation' Unit,
Directorate-General for Enterprise and Industry