Economic Clusters. I had only vaguely heard mention of them in all my years as a community development practitioner – and those mentions were always tinged with a kind of lefty-socialist-niche kind of feeling. But last week, at the invitation of TCI (The Cluster Initiative), I traveled to San Sebastian, Spain where I had the good fortune to spend 4 days with some of the brightest, most engaged and thoughtful economic development practitioners I have ever met.

It turns out that the TCI Network, now celebrating its 15th year, includes some 4000 corporate, SME, academic, R&D, and NGO members from some 100 countries! Who knew! All of them gathered in one place to talk about their experiences and their successes with developing clustered economic development nodes in industries ranging from aeronautics to surfing.

The basic concept is relatively simple. Consider the cultural, natural resource, geographic base of your region and deliberately build-out all aspects of one industry-type. Get your academic institutions, research departments, training facilities, policy people and businesses to agree on a ten year strategy that aligns one with the other. Work synergistically and collaboratively to build a network of relationships that support one another and that work for the common cause of being the best in the world at one thing.

At this 15th anniversary conference, the decision to profile the Basque Region of Spain was a deliberate one. Using the cluster approach, this region has managed to build one of the most successful corporate/cooperative business structures in the world – the Mondragon Group, which includes some 83,000 employees working for more than 200 companies. They elected to focus on the machine-parts sector as proof-of-concept and only a few years later have captured more than 30% of the European market with their products and services. But they are not resting on these laurels. As the VP of the Basque Government explained in the closing plenary – since the start of Mondragon, 11 sector clusters have now emerged in this tiny region of the world, and the institutions and policy frameworks are lining up to ensure they succeed.

— Brenda Kuecks, President