What makes a cluster? How can this over-used term best be defined? And more importantly, to what extent is a cluster even a good thing? From the corporate perspective, how much do – and should – companies actually care about clusters?

The first two questions receive a fair amount of play – although mainly from academics, think-tankers and the types of people who work in ‘cluster observatories’; the second two, not so much. But the latter are the more crucial, and the more complicated. For some sectors and companies, the existence of suppliers and partners is a major draw to a location. For others, being surrounded by competitors could be considered counterproductive.

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We seek to address, if not answer completely, all four questions in this issue’s cover story (page 68).

As Lara Williams writes, the conventional wisdom on clusters may not be all wrong, but neither should it be taken as read. At the heart of the debate, as our Europe columnist Douglas Clark argues (page 34), is the divide between how much companies think and talk about clusters versus how much hot air – and money – government agencies expend on doing so. Many companies do not much care if they are in a cluster per se, and might even be surprised to read in investment-promotion literature that they are at the heart of one.

It is because of this disconnect that artificial mechanisms and misguided motives for creating clusters, on the public sector side, cause many such initiatives to fall flat. Government-ordered clustering is a backwards approach; more sensible is to focus energy on supporting clusters – if we even want to insist upon calling them that – which happened to have sprung up because the environment was right in the first place. Clusters can perhaps be genetically engineered, but the most successful are almost always organic in nature.

If you build them, they might come. But why not see where they go and then build around them?

Courtney Fingar