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The University of Southampton
Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute

Clustering for Success: Marine innovation clusters meet to compare notes

Published: 21 June 2017
European Maritime Day
European Maritime Day

What makes for a successful marine and maritime innovation cluster? That was the question posed at the Clustering for Success workshop held recently at the European Maritime Day meeting in Poole. SMMI, on behalf of the South Coast Marine Cluster, organised the workshop that brought together marine and maritime innovation clusters from the UK, Ireland, France and Portugal to discuss what was working well and what challenges remain to be overcome. Other cluster groups participated from the floor to create a vibrant discussion on the importance of marine and maritime clusters for driving forward the blue growth agenda within the sector.

Top-Down versus Bottom-Up

Integrating top-down national and regional strategies for blue growth with bottom-up local communities of organisations mobilising to create jobs and growth is paramount. Too much top-down strategy and there is danger that activity gets bogged down in talking. Too little though, particularly in terms of national or regional funding, and it becomes very difficult for organisations at a local level to create the critical mass required for a cluster to thrive.

There seems to be an optimum amount of funding required. Too much and the easy money can diminish the personal commitment of key leaders in business. A thriving cluster needs some risk-takers, where the risks taken drive forward a determination to progress. Too little funding and the risks are too great for organisational commitment to catalyse progress. This illustrates the importance of organisational types as well as funding quantity.

Geographical extent

Clusters spread over different geographical areas. Those driven primarily from the bottom-up organisation of local companies have little reliance on administrative boundaries so the area of operation becomes more fluid. When top-down strategy and funding emerge then local administrative boundaries are more significant. Aligning local economic development initiatives into coherent regional and national programmes supporting the development of blue growth has been achieved in Ireland. France has strong regional foci driving forward the blue growth agenda. In the UK the Local Enterprise Partnerships are being encouraged to join forces to capitalise on Smart Specialisation opportunities but progress seems to be slow, particularly for blue growth.

Other marine and maritime clusters are emerging through the historical development of consortia for research projects, particularly related to the EU Framework programmes. These have no particular geographical boundaries, other than the EU itself, and demonstrate how once people have met a few times, geographical location doesn’t have to impinge on collaboration.

Triple or Quadruple Helix?

Who should be in a marine and maritime innovation cluster? Most clusters operate with a balance of large and smaller companies, government organisations of different scales and research organisations. This so-called triple helix approach works particularly well for initiatives with a focus on innovation. However, recent thought suggests that a fourth strand representing community interests would be good incorporate. This would help to ensure that new technology as it is being developed is shaped in part by community and NGO interests thus maximising the chances of social acceptance of a technology, particularly as it reaches a commercial scale. Without this fourth community strand in the helix there are greater risks of social disquiet and protest about the introduction of new blue growth technologies once they get to the point of field trials.

Social and cultural capital

Delivering a social dimension through the quadruple helix raises the importance of social and cultural capital to marine and maritime innovation clusters. Many marine and maritime clusters evolve through the presence of natural resources (natural capital) and the need for economic growth. These two drivers have been long associated with, say, the establishment of fishing communities, the rise of offshore oil and gas and more recently the advent of offshore renewable energy. Often overlooked though is the importance of the community itself, its values, its cohesion and commitment to an industry. If present the social and cultural capital can add significant value to blue growth.

Witness for example the community support for the offshore wind industry on the east coast of the UK. These communities had been reliant for many years on the fishing industry and then were left to die out when that industry transformed. The advent of offshore wind has rejuvenated those communities, not just providing jobs and money into the local economy, but also providing the basis for the communities to regenerate socially and culturally. That Hull, the base for Siemen’s offshore wind activities, is the UK’s City of Culture for 2017 is testimony to this. Now imagine a heavy industry attempting to locate into an area with significant natural, economic, social and cultural capital derived from tourism. Though the natural resources and the need for economic growth might be present it’s likely that the misalignment of social and cultural capital would hinder development.

Levels of cooperation and interaction

Finally marine and maritime clusters report differing levels of cooperation and interaction. Knowledge transfer lies at the heart of innovation. This can be new knowledge fresh from a research organisation or existing knowledge from one sector being introduced into another sector. Either way knowledge transfer is vital. Does that mean all knowledge must be freely available with no barriers to transfer? Clearly not. There are many examples where confidentiality agreements are used to good effect to protect intellectual property and help clusters to thrive.

Marine and maritime clusters can be collaborative but equally they can also be competitive. Recognising the importance of the balance between cooperating and competing is important in cluster success. Feeling part of a cluster can motivate organisations to cooperate but it doesn’t appear to be an essential component. When funding exists to stimulate collaboration that can act as a glue to bring organisations together. In the absence of this glue it is understandable that levels of cooperation may decline. Organisations, particularly SMEs, are very busy and need to develop a confidence that collaboration will lead to something positive.

Ultimately clusters are about people, their opinions, attitudes, motivations and behaviours. Success relies on people giving as well as taking. The EMD Workshop illustrated that clusters are an increasingly important feature of the marine and maritime sectors. Learning from experiences is important but one size definitely doesn’t fit all.


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