While the world focuses on “whither Amazon HQ2,” the federal government has made a far more important and long-lasting decision about the future of clusters in Canada. Clusters are geographically proximate groups of interconnected companies, suppliers, service providers and associated institutions. In an attempt to address a long-standing weakness of the Canadian economy, the federal government announced in mid-February five “superclusters” (series of related clusters that form larger ones). This is part of the five-year, $950-million Innovation Superclusters Initiative (ISI) that could materially impact the future of various sectors and players and the overall competitiveness of the country.
We at the Institute for Competitiveness & Prosperity, the only Canadian think tank that has researched clusters over the past 16 years, offer our congratulations to the supercluster finalists. Once the initial celebrations are over, though, the hard work begins. As such, we want to offer a few things to keep in mind to help these superclusters produce the economic growth and inclusive prosperity that Canadians hope for.
First, coordination is king. Some of the finalists, such as the Digital Technology Supercluster, have more than 200 organizations and post-secondary institutional members committing over $500 million for 100 projects or cluster initiatives. This is an ambitious undertaking and will require significant coordination. Within a cluster ecosystem, initiatives are often coordinated by cluster managers, who operate similarly to project managers, within cluster organizations. The supercluster finalists will need to hire experienced cluster managers to work within a large cluster organization or multiple, smaller organizations within various clusters to execute and manage these cluster initiatives or projects.
Executing hundreds of projects over the next decade, as some superclusters will, requires not only coordination but also continual education for all organizations involved. Corporations and specific sectors have jargon that may not be easily understood across a cluster, much less a supercluster. Developing and learning a common syntax, as well as tools and frameworks, will be helpful in enabling seamless collaboration.
Our research also found that companies that are already successful locally are more likely to export globally. The ISI is therefore an opportunity for large anchor firms to continue exploring new markets, but also to scale up and prepare smaller companies to export their products and services. Ideally, each supercluster will focus on scaling up and collaborating to eventually become export-oriented global leaders.
But to do so, each supercluster needs to develop a clear, concise and consistent story. Clear branding not only attracts foreign direct investment but also engages competitors to work together (in cluster development this is called “coopetition”).
Finally, with such a significant investment, accountability — in the form of continuous data gathering and evaluation to ensure this is a worthwhile investment by the federal government, along with provincial and municipal governments — is necessary to drive toward the ISI objectives.
For innovation to thrive, the focus should be less on outputs and more on long-term outcomes. Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada must balance the cost of capturing this data with the utility it will provide and the decisions it will impact. In many cases, these output data can be accompanied by qualitative data to give context on how well the superclusters are achieving the desired outcomes.
We would also like to encourage those who did not make the final list or shortlist of applicants to consider executing the projects identified in their applications. This is the time to come together as a country to jump-start the kind of cluster development that will make us global leaders and economic powerhouses.
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