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Can Smart Specialisation Strategies Learn Lessons from Cluster Policy? A look back at cluster policy in the North East of England

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Fiona WhitehurstORCiD


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This paper looks at the increasing popularity of the smart specialisation concept and its promotion as a regional development tool for lagging regions (McCann and Ortega-Argilés, 2011) and questions whether policy makers can learn lessons from the attempts to implement a cluster based policy for economic development in the North East of England from 1999 onwards. There are many critiques of the cluster concept and of policies claiming to use the concept to support regional economic development (Martin and Sunley, 2003). The theoretical basis for cluster policy remains little explored, with much work on cluster policy remaining descriptive and offering preliminary evaluations of what are relatively new initiatives (Raines, 2002). The multiple threads of explanation for clusters and their wildly varying dimensions (Enright, 2000) partly explain the popularity of the concept for policy makers, but also mean that the theoretical basis for cluster based policy must be teased out of a complex web of discourses on clusters. Martin and Sunley (2011) now argue that industrial clusters represent complex adaptive systems that evolve rather than follow a life cycle model. This conceptualisation enables us to view clusters not as single organisms with an, albeit varying, pattern of emergence, growth, mature, decline and even disappearance, tied into either an industry life cycle or a more nuanced cluster specific life cycle (Menzel and Fornahl, 2009), but as a composite system, a population of organisms (firms and other institutions). Viewing industrial clusters as complex adaptive systems casts doubt on the suitability of the well-established ‘life cycle’ metaphor and therefore recent attempts to suggest which policy measures should be applied at different stages of the cluster life cycle (Brenner and Schlump, 2011), but is a useful backdrop for addressing some of the problematic issues faced by policy makers when using cluster concepts to inform economic development policy. Problematizing cluster policy may then suggest lessons for smart specialisation approaches. This paper briefly discusses the origin of the cluster concept and recent developments in the literature. It then proposes that cluster policy development be understood as a process and a five-stage cluster policy model is briefly introduced. The model has five distinct stages: the decision to take a cluster approach; identification, selection and analysis of clusters; participant mobilisation, cluster animation and relation building; selection and implementation of policy instruments; and evaluation and policy learning (and potential policy exit). This process model highlights the importance of key individuals within clusters which is an area of interest in the literature on regional development (Sotarauta, 2006) and cluster specific literature (Steinle et al. 2007; Eklund et al. 2002; Andersson et al. 2004), but somewhat lacking in smart specialisation concepts. The empirical part of this paper takes a retrospective look at cluster policy in the North East of England since the late 1990s through the stages of the policy process model and concludes that many lessons can, and should, be learned.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Whitehurst FC

Publication type: Conference Proceedings (inc. Abstract)

Publication status: Unpublished

Conference Name: Meeting of the Social Dynamics of Innovation Networks (SDIN) Research Group

Year of Conference: 2013