Intermediaries are important actors in the regional context, especially regarding linking various actors together in triple helix constellations (Leydesdorff & Etzkowitz 1998; Etzkowitz et al 2000). As organisations become more specialized, there arises a need for intermediaries that fill the gaps between firms, academia and policy actors. Nakwa et al (2012) have for example found that intermediaries have a vital role in promoting triple helix networks. They suggest that intermediaries have three particularly important roles: channeling resources to industry; brokering & linking triple helix actors; and boundary spanning through knowledge circulation facilitation.
One type of intermediary organization that has grown in importance over the past decade is the so called cluster initiative (Ahedo, 2004). Cluster initiatives are organizations that visualize, explore and frame potential opportunities into useful middle-hands activities which become a formalized part of their portfolio. Through these activities they satisfy own and stakeholders’ needs, initiate joint networks between market actors, as well as promote technological and economic development territory of their location (Lundvall & Borras, 1997; Johannison & Lindholm Dahlstrand, 2009). On this basis they are sometimes characterized as “soft sides” of regional development (Simmie, 2004). One definition of the cluster initiative has recently been formulated by Ketels & Memedovic (2008) which state that it is an entity performing collaborative activities for different market actors to improve competitiveness of their region by creating interactive platforms and dialogues between the involved parties. Through performing such activities they aim to relate and connect actors to each other (Lagendijk & Cornford, 2000). Cluster initiatives are often rather small organizations employing just a few individuals, but are working in large networks and can attract various actors to their activities. This might enable them to be more flexible, fast-moving and efficient in realizing the real needs of stakeholders and members.
Despite the emergence of a large number of cluster initiatives and their recognized importance in regional development, there are relatively few studies of this phenomenon. This subject also needs to be further explored in the context of the triple helix (Nakwa et al 2012).
In this paper we will study how cluster initiatives stimulate regional development through their intermediating role within the triple helix. A specific interest is to analyze involvement of actors from different sectors and how it impacts provided resources and activities
In this study 253 European cluster initiatives have been contacted during the autumn of 2012. Cluster initiatives from eight European countries (Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and United Kingdom) have been selected. In total 136 cluster initiatives representing all these countries answered our questionnaire (response rate 53%). The answers were collected mainly via structured interviews with leaders or central individuals from the cluster initiatives and in some cases via a web-based form. The interviews were conducted over the telephone and lasted for approximately 60 minutes. The questionnaire included 39 questions and was pilot-tested and modified before the main data collection. The main sections within the questionnaire dealt with general characteristics, types of actors involved, activities, tasks and resources. A number of tentative hypotheses have been formulated and have been tested on the collected data. These deal with following areas:
1) Actors’ involvement and roles in tasks such as formulation of strategy, provision of resources (both hard and soft), and organization of day-to-day activities
2) Influence of factors such as age, geographical scope and type of provided activities on the number of members participating in the cluster initiatives
3) Change and development of activities and composition of actors
The collected data has been analyzed using SPSS and methods such as factor analysis and multiple regression.
Our preliminary findings suggest that a multitude of actors are involved in the strategic tasks of cluster initiatives, such as formulation of mission, vision and objectives. Meanwhile, the operative tasks are handled by internal staff of the cluster initiatives and to some extent external personnel.
Although we found several intriguing results in predicting how cluster initiatives are able to attract members, we believe one such finding is that older and more established cluster initiatives tend to be better equipped for attracting more members, while younger cluster initiatives depend on having more committed sponsors/key players in order to be able to attract and maintain members.
The data reveal significant changes in cluster initiatives over time. Regarding change, we found that many cluster initiatives increase the number of networking and marketing activities with time. We also found that the involvement of key players and support actors vary over time. We provide a tentative explanation for why time is important to consider in understanding the governance of cluster initiatives, and structuring the overall scope and service offering to effectively attract members from target groups.
Conclusions and implications
In this study we have investigated how cluster initiatives stimulate regional development through their intermediating role within the triple helix. We have found that cluster initiatives are organized in a specific way as an intermediating actor. Three groups of actors are connected to a cluster initiative in different ways. There is a target group which most often consists of firms from a selected industry and/or region. Furthermore, there is a support group which can be made up of research as well as public sector organisations. Finally, cluster initiatives have one or several key players which can for example provide different type of resources and guarantee the long-term survival and development of the intermediary. The key player can be for example a university, municipality or another public sector organisation.
One important conclusion from this paper is that many cluster initiatives have several key players from different sectors that all have influence on the strategy and operative activities of cluster initiatives. There are many advantages as well as disadvantages of being supported and governed by several key players. The advantages could probably be a more steady provision of necessary resources for long-term development and increased legitimacy towards all stakeholders. On the negative side, having several key players can provide complications for management of a cluster initiative, possibly reducing flexibility and degrees of freedom. There is also a risk for prolonged decision-making processes due to the multitude of actors involved. This could raise the question of whether there exist an optimal number of key players. Our data suggest that younger cluster initiatives potentially have a greater need for having several key players in order to establish themselves as a stable and trustworthy partner and overcome the “liability of newness” (Stinchcombe 1965). More mature cluster initiatives may be better off with fewer key players or key players that are aligned and share common visions and ideas on the development of the cluster initiative.