The socioeconomic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is asking new and difficult questions of companies, governments, universities and just about all organisations. As our economies and societies gradually re-open, those questions associated with immediate resistance to the pandemic are starting to give way to plans and strategies to get ‘back to business’. Yet living with the continued presence and threat of COVID-19 – alongside the progression of digital and green industrial transitions – means that it won’t be a return to ‘business as usual’, but rather movement towards the ‘next normal’.

While each firm and organization will need to find its own way to rebuild and adapt its activities, there is enormous scope for leveraging the power of collaboration. Innovating, adapting and responding to a new and fast-changing environment will need renewed forms of private-private, public-private and public-public collaboration. This is because working across organisational and/or departmental boundaries is critical for:

  1. sharing information and ideas that help navigate through times of heightened uncertainty; and

  2. developing solutions where the required capacities and knowledge simply don’t exist in any one organisation.

Collaborative dynamics are at the heart of what are commonly referred to as industrial clusters, a core area of Orkestra’s research. These are geographical concentrations of businesses and other organisations (research, education, government, civil society …) linked by their economic activities (related sectors, value chains, markets, technologies …). While the firms within industrial clusters often compete with one another, they also benefit from collaboration around innovation, internationalisation, specialised infrastructure, skills, supply chain development and more. Consequently, dedicated policies and organisations have emerged to proactively foster and support the collaborative dynamics within clusters.

The intermediary roles played by cluster organisations are being amplified in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, as collaboration becomes even more essential than usual. Cluster organisations in the Basque Country, for example, have been helping the Basque Government collect information about the immediate impacts and needs of SMEs and have been supporting collective efforts related to supply chain disruption and the manufacture of medical materials. This is mirrored across Europe, where the active role of cluster organisations in responding to the crisis can be seen in the wide range of experiences, solutions and requests logged at the European Cluster Collaboration Platform’s COVID-19 Industrial Clusters Response Portal.

As set out in our paper reflecting on the socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19, the reconstruction and renewal of our economies demands proactive policies that build regional resilience. Cluster policies and cluster organisations have a leading role to play here too. On the one hand they are critical for connecting businesses – especially SMEs – with policy makers. They can facilitate a real-time and accurate diagnosis of evolving needs and enable better targeting of policies. On the other hand, they are in a unique position to foster the connections and collective strategies that are needed to restore, reconsider and reorganize supply chains, both locally and globally.

Perhaps most important of all, however, is the role that cluster organisations can play in turning this crisis into an opportunity to address even larger societal challenges (e.g. see M. Larrea’s reflections in Spanish on COVID and the climate emergency). Before the COVID-19 crisis there was already increasing interest in the roles that cluster organisations can play beyond a narrow economic focus. For example, last year in the Basque Country SPRI and Orkestra organized a series of workshops for cluster organisations to reflect strategically around how they could facilitate the contribution of their members to different Sustainable Development Goals. A recent TCI Network webinar on evidencing the wider impact of clusters showcased a range of similar experiences from Catalonia, Lombardy and Sweden.

We have an opportunity to reconstruct and renovate European industry in a different way, to build regional economies that are economically and socially resilient, and to accelerate the deep transitions needed for a sustainable future. As key regional focal points for the collaborative dynamics necessary to do this, industrial clusters and cluster organisations must play a central role in seizing that opportunity.

james wilson

James Wilson

James Wilson is Research Director at Orkestra-Basque Institute of Competitiveness and teaching faculty at Deusto Business School.

His research interests are in policy-relevant analysis of territorial competitiveness and socio-economic development processes.