Research group at imec & Vrije Universiteit Brussel


Creative Cluster Development – A newly released book by SMIT researchers unveils what makes creative clusters work

In recent decades, the importance of creative cluster development has gained increasing recognition from national and regional governments. Creative clusters can be broadly defined as places and spaces where creativity and innovation takes place. These are often defined by agglomerations of creative firms and creative talent in certain cities are neighbourhoods. Some famous examples are Silicon Valley, Hollywood, or even a neighbourhood where a lot of artists are located.

SMIT researchers, Marlen Komorowski and Ike Picone brought insights from 24 internationally renown researchers and experts on creative clusters together presenting a rich range of new theoretical approaches and international case studies, including among others an analysis of coworking spaces in Toronto, business park development in MediaCityUK and, public–private partnerships in Warsaw and cases from Canada, South America and more.

Some major findings of the book are discussed below. Do you want to find out more and get your own copy?

Creative clusters and what they mean for cities and places

It was in the 1980s that local governments in the UK and the United States began to notice how creativity can have an effect on a city’s image as well as its economy by making it a site of vibrant creative and cultural production as well as consumption. The notion of the ‘creative city’, which began to epitomise these policies, did not emerge until the late 1990s. Creative clusters were increasingly seen as a tool for cities, regions and nations, to transform industrial capitals into new creative capitals.

Governments at all levels are still initiating new projects and initiatives today. Creative cluster development as a tool has been reinvented: it is today not onlya tool for urban regeneration but also a widely adopted policy measure to create sustainable growth for today’s local economies. We see that an increasingamount of investment is being poured into this development. There is evidence showing that creative cluster development takes today place in almost all partsof the globe. 

But what makes a creative cluster successful and can governments create creative clusters?


Developing creative clusters – what did we learn from the book?

The book illustrates that creative clusters have been proven to be a fitting policy tool for governments to cope with new challenges related to globalisation, digitisation and other trends impacting our cities and regions. From the various case studies and theoretical approaches introduced in the book, we can summarise a number of lessons learned:


1. No one-size-fits all approach

Each creative cluster is always bound to a specific location with a certain social and economic context. Clusters can not only be described by fixed flows of goods, services and labour, but also should be seen as dynamic arrangements in their global and local contexts. Everyone venturing into creative cluster development needs to keep in mind that it is not possible to draw general guidelines without considering this. The uniqueness also means that copying proven recipes from one cluster to the other might turn out not to be a very successful strategy. Still valuable lessons can be learned from emerging, developed and other clusters around the world.


2. Tensions as important explanators of creative cluster success

To understand the direction in which a cluster is going, its good or bad performance, its composition and so on is to understand the frictions between certain stakeholders, between visions, between ideas an their operationalisation, and whether or not they get resolved and how. On a more applied level, within urban, economic, cultural or social development policies that build on creative clusters, it is key to sense and signal these tensions. The case studies described in the book give evidence of different tensions in place. For example, there are tensions between the local versus the global outreach of creative clusters and the policymaking and creative communities. There are tensions between formal and informal creative cluster structures and between for example the business and the creative side of creative clusters. This shows that monitoring possible tensions is necessary from the onset of a clustering project and throughout its development.


3. Creating new governance structures for sustainable creative cluster development

The governance of creative clusters is a key factor in their success. This should be an eye-opener for (local) governments and public administrations engaged in supporting or running policy-led creative clusters. There is now plenty of evidence showing that merely agglomerating CCIs in one place is only part of the story. Actual collaboration in creative clusters, which is seen as a key factor for success for example, can grow in a bottom-up fashion when creative workers start to engage in communities of practice, local entrepreneurs invest in meeting spaces and opportunities, or cities stimulate joint initiatives. But collaborative participation between cluster members is not a guaranteed outcome of co-localisation per se. Having governance structures in place which can be formal and informal is therefore important to create successful creative clusters.


4. The impact of place on creative clusters

The mere localisation of creativity is not sufficient but public administrations should make sure to invest in actively fostering connections, knowledge exchange and other beneficial aspects of proximity. However, this does not mean that the notion of place has lost its value. Not all is about the network. Even in times where connections can easily be made through social media the pro-social fabric is still grounded in face-to-face activities in places and only then can be sustained across distance in creative clusters. The quality of a place can be difficult to grasp, let alone that it would be easy for public administrations to intervene in its texture. One way forward is to better understand the various dimensions of place, by looking at the place through different meanings of space – material, symbolic, social and economic. Generally, the key for local policymakers is to understand the role that a city’s or a region’s specific place plays in the attractiveness of their cluster. It is important to understand what reputation and image the place has.


5. Growing businesses and entrepreneurship in creative clusters

From the notion of image or reputation, we make a bridge to entrepreneurship. Indeed, these less explicit resources such as identity, image, reputation, learning and community prove to play an important role for entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs do not only choose to co- locate in clusters for purely economic reasons, like minimising transaction costs or achieving knowledge and networking externalities. Creative clusters are also used by creative entrepreneurs to show that they are entrepreneurial, innovative and artistic. The other way around, entrepreneurial activities might be key drivers of creative clusters. Hence, creative clusters and entrepreneurial activities may be mutually reinforcing their strengths. However, here too tensions can arise, as what is good for the cluster is not always good for the businesses and entrepreneurs. Connecting and co-locating businesses and entrepreneurs might face higher competition in a cluster for example. It shows the importance for policymakers to think through how they want creative clusters to interact with entrepreneurial activities and vice versa. One way forward proposed in the book is definitely to broaden our notion of entrepreneurship to not only incorporate benefits for a city’s economic tissue, but also for its cultural production and creative development. This implies policymakers should step away from economic impact as the central parameter of entrepreneurship and creative clusters and also look into the social and creative fabric of clusters.


6. Creative clusters are no guarantee for success

Finally, the book highlights that even with the best intentions, thorough preparation and the willingness to overcome possible tensions, creative clusters will not always be a guarantee for success. Policymakers can certainly play a role in developing creative clusters but should act from an understanding that their influence on a cluster is limited as many other factors come into play, which are beyond their control.

Still, based on the findings of the book, the authors are confident that creative cluster development can be successfull when the goals of the initiative are clearly defined, and operational choices are made accordingly.

Find out more in the book and learn from various case studies from Belgium, the UK, Germany, the US, Canada, South America, Poland, etc.