Published in the Telegraph-Journal 14th February 2012
Clusters are among the most popular of economic development policies. A host of magazines, journals and online sites are dedicated to focusing on the cluster phenomenon. Every day there is news of a new initiative trumpeting a new cluster strategy. It would be difficult today to find a country, region, or city that is not actively attempting to develop a network of complementary and competitive firms. Not all economic activity centers are actually clusters but the term has become a synonym for creative innovation networks. The political appeal is immediately obvious, particularly now that the global financial crisis has put a laser focus on innovation to support growth and job creation. However, the challenge lies in turning a newly created science park or knowledge corridor into a genuinely competitive center for innovation.
But what were key business attraction features only a few years ago are bog standard today. This has made it more difficult for smaller centers to add advantages to compensate. But many of the practices and ideas being used by innovation networks around the world have common features. Virtually all successful innovation networks have government playing a crucial role and it is clear that many innovation networks have succeeded by dint of government involvement. What is challenging to get right is the scope and scale of support; while hyperactive intervention can stifle progress, too little can lead to a lack of vital support.
Innovation networks have collaboration at their foundation, so success involves more than just locating firms in the same region. Although innovation networks are increasingly globalized, almost all experts agree that ideas, innovation and commercialization flow fastest in a local community. A critical element of innovation network development is fostering this collaboration, especially where this has not been an integral part of the local business culture.
Talent management has become the single most important factor in developing successful innovation networks. The overarching objective of government in the most advanced innovation networks is developing a continuous supply of talent with world-class skills. Ottawa’s tech cluster success is in no small measure owing to its long-term efforts to develop the quality of its workforce where its two universities play a significant role. Since not all world-class talent can be grown at home, a related focus should be on encouraging the inward migration of specialized personnel from around the world.
Governments need to work to promote a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship. This is especially critical where government organizations are seen as the primary pathways to success. This means government must act as a model user for promising innovative products and services, a role that governments are not intrinsically comfortable playing.
Innovation networks work best when they are focused and can compete. The Ontario Technology Triangle region accelerated its growth to support the development of RIM’s rapidly expanding physical and intellectual campus. Ottawa’s tech community evolved around Nortel, Corel, Mitel and Newbridge. Universities were supportive sponsors in both locations and integral to their success.
Governments can do much to create an attractive business environment. This not only involves easing planning rules, making the tax code transparent, removing penalties for failure and smoothing immigration processes but focuses on the critical importance of ensuring a good quality of life for prospective employees and support efforts to attract and retain talent.
These factors frame the New Brunswick challenge to support innovation networks to supercharge growth and job creation. Since government is at the center of the success of innovation networks, a key strategy will be to ensure that its near-term restructuring does not overlook the importance of innovation support in its quest to stabilize budgets.