Strongest cluster initiatives are unafraid to “pick winners” from the broad array of potential alternatives

The most successful cluster initiatives have five traits according to researchers at Brookings:

1. Focused on establishing a robust ecosystem, not quick job gains

Cluster initiatives must be focused on establishing a robust and regenerating ecosystem that produces the innovation, talent, and economic opportunities that firms need to thrive. These initiatives must be first and foremost about the growth and competitiveness of existing firms in the cluster (as well as the needs of related entities, like academic institutions), and not just on job growth.

2. Industry-driven, university-fueled, government-funded

The strongest cluster initiatives are private sector-driven, with interventions catalyzed by groups of firms that believe they will benefit by working collectively to fill gaps in the cluster ecosystem and staff with industry expertise and a collaborative mentality. Research universities provide needed innovation and talent, and public investment is critical. Federal, state, and local governments have made major investments to support each cluster initiative and give it early credibility.

3. Placing a collective big bet on a unique opportunity

The most successful cluster initiatives are in regions willing to place strategic bets on distinct cluster opportunities. These places have a long-term mindset and are unafraid to “pick winners” from the broad array of potential alternatives. They recognize that resources are scarce and competition is high, and that the only way to distinguish themselves is by funneling their energy and investment into a limited number of truly unique specializations.

4. Championed by passionate, dedicated leaders

Individual leaders have proven invaluable in championing each successful cluster initiative. These leaders typically emerge from businesses operating within the sector, driven by a new vision and clear purpose, and/or as CEOs of the lead cluster organizations. They are thought leaders who recognize a unique opportunity, have crafted a compelling narrative, and are willing to dedicate the time needed to launch and sustain a bold cluster initiative.

5. Anchored by a physical center

Most of the cluster initiatives profiled have created a physical center to serve as visible proof that the region is a major hub for the cluster and to provide a space that facilitates knowledge spillovers between firms, academic researchers, and related enterprises. While companies and assets involved in the cluster are often scattered throughout each region, these centers tie them together. These centers may take the form of a single building, an urban district, or a suburban campus. One note of caution: Though real estate development can play an important role in cementing a cluster that is already robust, it cannot create a cluster.