On superclusters and ecosystems
by Christian Rangen

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Innovation superclusters and innovative ecosystems are both crucial engines of growth. In our research, we have looked into future trends and how governments can actively build both types of entity.

Superclusters vs ecosystems

Globally, there are estimated to be around 7,000 formal innovation clusters. The EU alone has close to 3,000 entities. Countries such as Denmark and Norway have around 40 each. Out of the global total, between 15 and 25 may be recognized as genuine innovation superclusters.

While regional clusters, anchored in theories of agglomeration economics and local industry analysis have been recocgnized since at least the late 1980s, our understanding of superclusters is just emerging. These initiatives are large, national-level innovation programs, built around specific industries to accelerate system-level innovation at scale. They have a global outlook, extend beyond national borders, and, over time, become magnets attracting in capital, talent and companies. Canada, India, China, France and the EU all have supercluster initiatives at various stages of development, from fully funded and operational in Canada to early exploratory discussions in the EU.

Drucker Forum 2019

On the other hand, rankings of start-up ecosystems will usually list the top 150 to 200, with Silicon Valley, Beijing, Boston, Shanghai, New York and Tel Aviv heading the list. Most often, ecosystems are emergent, loosely self-organized around a number of themes, and most often without any formal operating organization.

One ecosystem, let’s say Beijing, may count 30 – 100 clusters. Today, you would expect to find clusters on clean energy, biotech, AI, gaming, education tech, mobility, electric vehicles, energy storage and advanced materials in the greater Beijing region. While the clusters are funded, built and led by a management team, the ecosystem surrounding them is a collection of many stakeholders loosely collaborating.

It is safe to say that superclusters and ecosystems frequently overlap and both systems of innovation are important; yet they are also fundamentally different.

Source: Building Innovation Superclusters (Rangen, Christian) 2019

Source: Building Innovation Superclusters (Rangen, Christian) 2019

Superclusters are actively built

Innovation clusters, of any size, are the result of both active government programs, long-term industry leadership and hands-on organizational development. China has a national Torch program for developing new and high-tech industries that debuted in 1998. The origins of Norway’s national cluster program date back to the early 1990s.

A cluster will always have an operating organization, a (small) management team, a board or steering committee, an operating budget, members and reporting. No matter what size, from early “baby clusters”, to growth clusters and superclusters, these traits are always in place.

Take two ocean-centric clusters, NCE Seafood Innovation Cluster, located in Bergen, Norway, and Canada’s Ocean Supercluster, based in St. John, Newfoundland

Both are led by a CEO, co-funded by government and industry and working to solve industry-level challenges to unlock sustainable economic growth in the ocean space. They have funding, annual operating budgets, organization charts and board meetings. For all practical purposes, they function like a fully developed organization.

Ecosystems are passively nurtured

Ecosystems, on the other hand, are far more passively nurtured. Granted, governments will invest heavily in various elements of ecosystem development – witness Singapore’s recent announcement of a $500M investment in building one of the world’s leading AI ecosystems, for example.

This will likely propel Singapore forward and put it even more firmly on the world map of most innovative tech hubs.
But you are unlikely to find a CEO, a single member-based operating unit, a cluster-based strategy document and the close collaboration found in the best clusters around the world.

CB Insights, an analysis firm, recently published an overview of the world’s leading tech hubs, or ecosystems. Much along the methodology lines of Startup Genome, which compiles data on start-ups, CB Insights maps out the best tech hubs, based on a number of key variables.

While these ecosystems are generally very impressive, contain a number of innovative organizations and share collective resources, they are too loose and informal to be considered a cluster.

Looking ahead

Looking ahead, our research shows that innovation superclusters are on the rise. At the same time, regions and nations are competing more than ever to attract, build and scale the best tech firms. Whether in life sciences, AI, smart mobility, clean energy or platform-based business models; expect to see both superclusters and ecosystems become an even higher greater for governments, policymakers and nation-builders in decades to come.

About the author:

Christian Rangen, founder and CEO of Engage // Innovate and Strategy Tools – the Modern Strategist’s Platform, is a strategy and transformation advisor to companies, innovation clusters and governments. His forthcoming book on Superclusters will be published in late 2020.

This article is one in the Drucker Forum “shape the debate” series relating to the 11th Global Peter Drucker Forum, under the theme “The Power of Ecosystems”, taking place on November 21-22, 2019 in Vienna, Austria #GPDF19 #ecosystems

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