Clusters can help EU rise to 'grand societal challenges'

If Europe wants world class regional clusters then they must operate in global networks, writes Markku Markkula.

By Markku Markkula

23 Mar 2015

Clusters are important drivers for competitiveness and sustainable development. They also contribute to territorial cohesion by boosting regional economic development and creating jobs and growth.

On a European basis, as well as through successful national or regional policies, we can create the favourable preconditions for tackling Europe's grand societal challenges.

However, for this we need innovative solutions, world class networks and real action based on local and regional level public-private-people partnerships. Regional innovation ecosystems are needed to combine risk capital with skills and research excellence within strong cluster portfolios if we are to form such global innovation hubs.

"Clusters can be key delivery instruments for both national and regional smart specialisation strategies"

As the Committee of the Regions (CoR) already underlined in a 2008 opinion, cooperation between clusters is a promising way to strengthen Europe's innovative capacity and attract global attention from investors and innovators. 

European cooperation needs to be upgraded to the level of bench-learning and successful partnering between regions. And for this to happen we must explore new instruments such as regional innovation strategies - including smart specialisation, which allows regions to focus on their strengths.

Over the past few decades Finland has invested heavily in research and development, specialising more recently in the fields of biotechnology and the life sciences. In the late 1990s, Finland and many other member states promoted national cluster programmes with the intention of supporting the most prominent industry clusters - so called mega clusters which drive national growth - through increased financing for collaborative R&D projects. 

To get more out of the cluster policy today, there has been a shift towards regional hubs and the triple helix model of innovation, supported by cooperation between universities, industry and government.

The Helsinki region is, in many respects, a pioneer when it comes to clusters, much of which is thanks to its attractive base: seven universities, seven universities of applied sciences and several research centres. Focusing on bioeconomy, Helsinki's bio-centres are further supported by 300 companies in the life science sector and 300 working on clean technology, as well as many others in other fields of bioeconomy. 

Together, this provides an excellent research environment for scientists and incubator companies to learn, while offering facilities and services for start-up companies to develop and grow.

I recently participated in the inauguration ceremony for the biggest biotech research unit in Scandinavia. The technology research centre of Finland VTT Ltd has invested €10m in my home city of Espoo in a new bio-factory pilot plant.

Our bioeconomy success is strongly based on multidisciplinary research and pioneering investments. To get more with less requires better understanding of knowledge processes and integrating green ICT and the circular economy.

"Cooperation between clusters is a promising way to strengthen Europe’s innovative capacity and attract global attention from investors and innovators"

In the Helsinki area, we are ready to take our regional cluster policy further by exploring connected innovation infrastructures such as 'future internet' experimentation and test bed facilities, 'living labs' and other resources, which are the backbone for 2020-connected innovation ecosystems across Europe.

Turning back to the national cluster programmes of the 90s, the main difference I see today is that regional cluster programmes can capitalise on local knowhow and assets. Development of their interactions at regional level is part of their assets, if not the condition to their success. 

However, this is not enough as regional clusters must press for national and international cooperation. Policies and tools can be developed that connect networks that are linked with the same product, but in different cities, regions and countries.

The Horizon 2020 funded action entitled 'Cluster facilitated projects for new industrial value chains' will provide €24.9m to fund projects that involve clusters in defining new industrial value chains to support European growth.

While such financial support should be welcomed, the EU should also actively promote cooperation between financial instruments for innovation to facilitate investment in major projects involving several regions from different European countries via clusters. 

The CoR is also placing emphasis on supporting initiatives, which are based on extensive new public-private collaborative concepts and which integrate traditional investments with innovative jobs and growth businesses, through the European fund for strategic investments.

Clusters can be key delivery instruments for both national and regional smart specialisation strategies. The level of government best suited to initiate, implement or fund a policy depends on the governance framework in the region or country, as well as the nature of the policy.

However, there is an economic rationale for all levels of government (local, regional, national and in some cases supranational) to support such policies and for them to be delivered in the spirit of multilevel governance.


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