September 2016.- Christian Ketels holds a PhD in Economics from the London School of Economics and also is the President of TCI Network, a global platform of experts and organizations on clusters, innovation and competitiveness. Dr. Ketels is a member of Harvard Business School faculty and has directed projects all over the world in the area of clusters. He has developed the European strategic definition of RIS3. Dr. Ketels is a relevant author in competitiveness and strategy fields, and has collaborated with Michael E. Porter from the Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness, and with the World Economic Forum with his publications.
As a researcher at Harvard Business School, Doctor in Economics and expert in cluster ecosystems, how would you define a cluster?
A cluster is a hotspot of activity in a certain of type of sector. It combines two aspects: it is a group of related industries -not just one sector- and is geographically concentrated. It's thus not like a global network, which is also very important. The local character is important because the most relevant asset really is the density of collaboration between companies than can only be achieved by partners in close proximity.
Clusters emerge entirely naturally. They emerge because companies in these clusters are more successful and grow faster than companies elsewhere. If you look at the investment decisions, companies actually try to scout out these hotspots around the world. They want to be placed there because that's where they can get the most compete advantages for their own company and their positioning. That's what clusters are about.
In terms of innovation and competitiveness, what does a cluster offer to a company?
Companies can nowadays access specialized suppliers from around the world. But it is with those suppliers that you have close, the ones in your cluster, that you can work much more intensely, especially in innovation. So, for example, if you produce the first prototype with the aim to translate it into a product, then the presence in a cluster can help industrialize to scale: you have collaboration opportunities and, of course, knowledge spill-over, driven by people moving around and taking ideas with them. Every part can learn from others, competing intensely day by day and raising the potential as a company to really develop their value to do innovative things.
Taking into account your global perspective in evaluating cluster ecosystems, how would you value the Catalan position within the European cluster ecosystem?
In Spain, both the Basque region and Catalonia are leaders, and they have been for many years. Catalonia started with cluster efforts earlier than many other parts of Europe, and is globally seen as one of the leaders in this field. And it is still one of the regions that comes up with new approaches, for example on using clusters as a platform for internationalization. Cross-cluster collaboration —where one cluster in a region explores what technologies or approaches it can share with another cluster to benefit both— started here before it became very popular on a European level as well. There is a lot of thinking on cluster-based economic development that emanates out of of Catalonia that is important.
As a President of the TCI Network, the global collaboration of experts and organizations of clusters and competitiveness, why did you choose Barcelona as its headquarters?
Catalan clusters policies have always been on the forefront of driving excellence in cluster initiative management. And Catalonia is engaged on an international level to further push these developments. That doesn’t mean Catalonia is perfect: there is in my view potential for Catalonia to better leverage this institutional infrastructure of clusters. Why not connect clusters more strongly to FDI attraction, to how we can bring in foreign companies in a way that connects them with local companies adding values to us as region here. Thanks to clusters, Catalonia actually is much more attractive to these foreign companies because they immediately get into an ecosystem of partners rather than just a greenfield site to invest in.
Do you consider that cluster policy is definitely related to foreign investment attraction?
Absolutely. Invest Sweden, where I served on the advisory board for a while, pursued such a cluster-based strategy. When your goal is to attract foreign investment you need to focus on your value proposition, what you are selling. And that is connected both to aspects of the business environment but also to all of the other companies you already have in your location, i.e. your clusters.
Is there any link between the competitiveness of a country and the strength of its clusters?
There is a positive correlation between the two, we see that in the data: stronger and more competitive countries have more dynamic clusters. But the interesting fact is that clusters as the concentration of related economic activities in a specific location, are observed in economies at every stage of economic development. They allow you to get more out of the business environment assets that you have. I believe that clusters can also help government to channel, prioritize and sequence how to upgrade and how to become better. So it is a tool for everyone, but it is definitely true that the strength of clusters goes hand to hand with the overall competitiveness of the location.