Clusters are geographic concentrations of interconnected companies or institutions that manufacture products or deliver services to a particular field or industry. Clusters arise because they increase the productivity with which companies within their sphere can compete. Clusters typically include companies in the same industry or technology area that share infrastructure, suppliers, and distribution networks. Supporting firms that provide components, support services, and raw materials come together with like-minded firms in related industries to develop joint solutions and combine resources to take advantage of market opportunities. These are groups of related businesses and organizations—sometimes direct competitors, but more often operating in a complementary manner. They may comprise more than just one industry and a true cluster is more than just a supplier-producer-buyer model.
An economic cluster, or several clusters, serves as the driving force in most regional economies. Examples include Detroit's auto industry concentration, computer chip production in California's Silicon Valley, London's financial sector, the Napa Valley's wine production, and Hollywood's movie production industry. Because clusters are a vibrant economic force, the development and upgrading of clusters is an important economic development objective for governments and other organizations involved in regional economic development efforts.
The clustering concept was popularized by Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter (1990). His techniques teach communities to analyze their existing business and industrial bases and build their economic development on those strengths. From the identified clusters in an area, the next step is to develop a marketing plan for industry.
By developing a massive database of companies, county by county, Dr. Porter's research has statistically grouped businesses together in clusters. A strong cluster will include the suppliers of raw materials and the distributors, as well as the primary producers. But it will also include specialized services in finance, marketing, packaging, education, and more, including specialized trade associations. In general, the broader the base of related businesses, the better for the cluster, for that often reflects the specialization that comes with concentrated resources.
Related firms and industries have tended to locate in close geographical proximity for a number of reasons. In his 1916 economic text, Alfred Marshall was one of the first to identify the benefits of spatial clustering. These benefits include: the existence of a pooled market for specialized workers; the provision of specialized inputs from suppliers and service providers; and the rapid flow of business-related knowledge among firms, which results in technological spillovers. It may be difficult to predict where clusters will emerge beforehand, but once established their growth is predictable due to the benefits gained from the strategy and the economies of scale produced. A variety of terms are synonymous to a cluster; these include co-location, industrial districts, and innovative milieus.
BENEFITS OF CLUSTERING
A well-developed concentration of related business spurs three important activities: increased productivity (through specialized inputs, access to information, synergies, and access to public goods), more rapid innovation (through cooperative research and competitive striving), and new business formation (filling in niches and expanding the boundaries of the cluster map).
Clusters are always changing. They respond to the constant shifting of the marketplace. They usually begin through entrepreneurship. Silicon Valley is a relatively new cluster of computer-related industries; in the past, Detroit was the same for automobiles. Nothing sparks productive innovation better than having your competitor across the street.
Clustering helps cities and counties direct their economic development and recruiting efforts. It also encourages communities to refocus efforts on existing industries. Communities understand that the best way to expand their own economies and those of the surrounding region is to support a cluster of firms rather than to try to attract companies one at a time to an area. Chambers of Commerce, business incubators, and some universities work with companies to develop clusters and synergies in business communities.
Strong domestic clusters also help attract foreign investment. If clusters are leading centers for their industries, they will attract all the key players from both home and abroad. In fact, foreign-owned companies can enhance the leadership of the cluster and contribute to its upgrading, according to research by Julian Birkinshaw (2000), Chair and Professor of Strategic and International Management at the London Business School.
For small and developing businesses, locating in a cluster near competitors and related industries may aid the firm in faster growth, recognition, and status within the market. Economies of scale can be gained by group purchasing within the cluster. There can be discussions among cluster members about their unique competitive advantages and future challenges. Linked supply chain networks can naturally be created within a tightly-linked cluster. Informal day-to-day contact with similar companies is also important and physical location proximity is not always required to be a cluster. Many firms, including retailers and publishers, can be grouped together in "cyberspace" by sharing an Internet site.
Potential Downside of Clusters
A concentrated industrial base has one potential downside if the concentration is oriented too closely to a single industry. A community that has reaped the benefits of a cluster for a long period of time may also find it very difficult to adjust during a time of downturn for the industry central to their cluster. The difficulties being experienced by the State of Michigan during the early 2000s is an example of this phenomenon. The decline of the American automobile manufacturing industry has had an especially profound impact on metropolitan Detroit and its surroundings, areas that have consistently had the highest unemployment rates in the country during the first decade of the new century. In an early 2006 New York Times article entitled "Putting the Motor City Back in Gear," the decline of the "Big Three" American automakers was described as the sad story of armies in retreat and a retreat that is feeling more and more like a rout. Some diversity within an industrial concentration is desirable. The most promising clusters are those that include more than a single industry because diversity provides the flexibility necessary to change with evolving market trends and broader economic transitions.
A CLUSTER EXampLE: "THE CARPET CAPITAL OF THE WORLD"
The city of Dalton, Georgia—located between Atlanta, Georgia, and Chattanooga, Tennessee—is unrivaled in its production of carpet. Almost 90 percent of the functional carpet produced worldwide is made within a 25-mile radius of Dalton. In their 1999 book about the industry, Randall L. Patton and David B. Parker note that Dalton has evolved in much the same way as California's Silicon Valley, through a rapid expansion of new firms started by entrepreneurs and through cooperation among owners, mills, and local government. It was only after World War II that the carpet industry came to be identified with this region. Entrepreneurs developed a new tufting technology and captured the carpet industry previously dominated by woven-wool carpet manufacturers in the Northeast.
The six largest carpet companies and 18 of the largest 35 carpet companies are headquartered in Georgia. The carpet cluster includes the carpet tufting mills, yarn mills, finishers, backing manufacturers, machinery suppliers, maintenance services, and sample companies that directly support the carpet industry. Seventy-five to eighty percent of the yarn used by the carpet industry is produced and processed in Georgia. Over 50,000 employees in Dalton are engaged in carpet manufacturing, and seventy-two interstate trucking companies are utilized to transport carpet and raw materials, in addition to fleets owned by many carpet companies.
A CLUSTERING MODEL IN PROGRESS
Porter recently applied his work in industry clusters and economic analysis to the community that includes the carpet cluster. His data is available at the county level and organizes businesses into some 50 industry clusters producing non-local goods and services. Many familiar businesses are excluded. Fast-food restaurants, automobile dealers, and newspapers, for instance, are spread rather evenly across the country, for they serve basically local customers.
Porter also helped the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, to perform a cluster analysis. To implement a regional growth initiative, the city appointed two groups: a steering committee of 25 members, including prominent business and government leaders, to provide guidance and policy direction; and a core team of business and academic leaders to research local conditions and manage cluster team meetings. The region for study was based on geographic features, political boundaries, local sentiments, economic strengths, and even commuting patterns. For each cluster, a "location quotient" was developed and defined as the cluster's strength here compared to what might be expected if that industry were spread evenly across the country.
The "Textiles and Floor Coverings Cluster," centered in Dalton but with related businesses elsewhere in the region, was by far the strongest cluster. The carpeting businesses also accounted for most of the strength in the second strongest cluster, "Construction Materials." Three additional clusters emerged: "Confectionery and Baked Goods," "Tourism and Hospitality," and "Medical Devices and Health Services."
Leaders in each field, and others from lists generated by Standard Industry Classification code numbers, were invited to become part of the cluster team and attend a series of meetings over four weeks. The agenda for the teams included a discussion of conditions in the cluster; issues holding the cluster back; opportunities for creating better inputs, sharper demand, and high-quality related institutions; and problems with regulation, the labor pool, and the physical infrastructure. The meetings also included a discussion of what cluster team members could do about these issues; what types of legislation or change in processes could make the cluster better; cooperative efforts toward applied research; and ways to attract complementary businesses to the region.
The immediate goal was a plan for action that went well beyond analysis. The ultimate goal was to accomplish change. The core or "diamond" of the cluster included: factor input conditions (labor, capital, resources, etc.); demand conditions (nature of the home market, including any special conditions or expertise locally); related and supporting industries (from service industries to trade associations); and context for firm strategy and rivalry (the level of entrepreneurship, and tradition of united actions). The team in Chattanooga learned that concentrated competition leads to greater prosperity, and the best strategy means not trying to do all things but focusing on your cluster. There was also a more general appreciation that the cluster process could, indeed, lead to more and better-paying jobs and that a strong cluster would enhance the general economic situation for its members. In the end, the Chattanooga region should see a shift in its own business culture. It should move away from traditional reliance on fixed endowments, and move toward real competition, true productivity, effective collaboration and greater prosperity.
Birkinshaw, Julian. "Upgrading of Industry Clusters and Foreign Investment." International Studies of Management and Organizations. Summer 2000.
Edidin, Peter. "Putting the Motor City Back in Gear." New York Times. 29 January 2006.
Muktarsingh, Natasha. "In Search of Ghetto Heaven." Director 2000.
Patton, Randall L., and David B. Parker. Carpet Capital: The Rise of a New South Industry. University of Georgia Press, 1999.
Porter, Michael E. Locations, Clusters, and Company Strategy. Oxford University Press, 2000.
"Regions Should Muster Cluster." Business North Carolina. September 2004.
Sickinger, Ted. "Harvard Professor Suggests Industry Clusters." The Oregonian. 10 January 2006.