The political history of innovation clusters

I’ve noted in recent NHBR articles the Obama Administration’s enthusiasm for regional innovation clusters as an organizing framework for sector-based economic growth and job creation and, in particular, the unique role of SBA Administrator Karen Mills in driving this approach.Given the new political realities of the mid-term results, I now offer some insight into clusters’ historic origins with a view on policy where both parties can find common ground.One of the earliest policy organizations formed to advocate for regional competitiveness and clusters was the Council on Competitiveness, formed in 1986 by John Young, the chairman of then President Ronald Reagan’s Commission on Industrial Competitiveness.The council sponsors conferences, seminars and reports to help catalyze new ideas and solutions that speak to competitiveness in specific regions (e.g. Brazil) and in key sectors, such as energy.Michael Porter – a professor at Harvard Business School and perhaps the most widely recognized advocate for regional competitiveness today – was on the council’s board and still serves on its executive committee.Porter’s support for a Republican viewpoint is not limited to the council. He was tapped to chair Republican Mitt Romney’s Global Competitiveness Policy Advisory Group and has made personal donations to Republican campaigns and organizations in Massachusetts.Nonetheless, Porter has proven himself accessible to all political parties through his Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness at Harvard, and has provided counsel to SBA’s Mills in respect of her work.The ISC received $1 million this fall from the U.S. Department of Commerce to support its cluster mapping initiative.America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education and Science Act of 2007, or America COMPETES, is another important example of bipartisan support for clusters.The act, signed by President George W. Bush in August 2007, was designed “to invest in innovation through research and development, and to improve the competitiveness of the United States.”America COMPETES was re-authorized in May in the House by 262-150 – so included more than a few Republicans. This updated version included language to create a competitive regional innovation cluster grant program.While this House-approved bill has yet to pass the Senate, it shares the same right-leaning legacy that spawned the Council on Competitiveness.An opportunity for agreementCluster development is private-sector led and has a good “bang for the buck.”Activating, growing and sustaining clusters requires convening and connecting regional sector market actors for education, networking and commerce.Existing technology, trade, economic and community development organizations are well suited to lead, and tend to find ready support for these activities through private sector sponsorship.Fiscal Year 2010 saw a slew of cluster awards (see Sept. 24 – Oct. 15, “Catalyzing Clusters”), and is just the first step in a multi-year push for clusters at the federal level.In the contentious political environment, however, this initiative could get swallowed up with a host of other plans developed by the Democrats to stimulate the economy to create jobs.Given its legacy, which seems very much Republican in origin, clusters seem ideal for bipartisan support in an environment in which the likelihood of consensus across a range of issues seems small.Both federal and state governments have precious little capital lying around to fund much of anything new, but considering its Republican provenance and the cross-agency support from a Democratic administration working to find common ground, this seems to be one program that ought to be a win-win for both parties and for the country.Michael Gurau is president of Clear Innovation Partners, a Maine-based firm formed to catalyze and sustain innovation and entrepreneurship in rural and urban economies. He can be reached