By Daniel Isenberg
Posted: 16 November 2010 – 4:53 pm
Zebras are beautiful. They are powerful. They exist in nature. But if someone told you that you could
paint a white jackass with black stripes and call it a zebra, you would send them packing. The necessary
and sufficient conditions for breeding zebras are two mature adults of opposite gender, springtime, and
Economic clusters are effective. They are powerful. They exist in nature. So why do most economic
policy makers think they can take some real estate, paint it with an anchor tenant and a name, and call it
a cluster? The necessary, and often sufficient, condition for clusters is successful entrepreneurship.
Like the 1980’s wag about an executive never being fired for buying IBM, the 2000’s version is that a
policy maker cannot be fired for promoting a “cluster strategy.” There are only three small questions: Do
they work? Are they necessary? And, can they do damage?
Do cluster strategies work? I recently spent a few days with several dozen of the world’s leading cluster
consultants advising a large government on implementing a national cluster strategy: “Show me the
examples where government initiated clusters have fulfilled their entrepreneurial promise,” I asked.
After shoulders shrugged, Singapore’s Biopolis, the country’s ambitious development for biomedical
research and business, was the best answer. But the evidence that the Singapore government’s $500
million, 2001 program actually created entrepreneurship remains scant. Biopolis did attract world class
scientists, a few interesting European biotechnology companies, a few multinational tenants, and some
early stage biosciences companies, but nine years and $500 million later, the most we can say is, “the
jury is still out.” What is missing is entrepreneurship, the only aspect of Singapore’s economy that
warranted significant criticism from the recent WEF competitiveness report.
Are cluster strategies necessary? Several of the most entrepreneurial regions in the world became so
without, or despite, cluster strategies. Iceland’s most successful ventures include a leading generics
pharmaceutical manufacturer (Actavis), a leading multimedia game developer (CCP), and a leading
prosthetics manufacturer (Ossur). None of these is related to Iceland’s “national competitive
advantages” of natural beauty, geothermal energy, and fish.
The Israeli Chief Scientist’s venture funding policy for decades was explicitly sector-agnostic, and only in
the past year or so has begun to earmark a minority of funds for specific industries. Yes, Israeli ventures
did “clump” naturally in certain areas, such as microprocessor design and data security, but not because
of top-down cluster strategies, but because entrepreneurs “sniffed out” opportunities to exploit
competencies developed largely in military R&D.
In the cases of both Israel and Iceland, the critical element was bottoms-up entrepreneurship, which
defied any top-down cluster logic.
Taiwan is an instructive example of a top-down sectoral strategy that did contribute to
entrepreneurship. The county’s entrepreneurial transformation was significantly impacted due to the
government’s investment in semiconductor technology in the 1980s, combined with related research
and training institutes and the building of Hsinchu Science Park just outside of Taiwan. But the
government was careful to “set the table” for the entrepreneurs, but not tell them when, what, or how
In fact, research has consistently shown that successful clusters follow entrepreneurship, not the other
Can cluster strategies be detrimental? “We are not so much a cluster as a grouping of competitors
faced with an economic crisis, fierce competition, high labour costs, and a weak dollar,” commented the
head of the Matera Italy’s vaunted furniture cluster last year.1 In fact, most of Italy’s clusters were in
serious difficulty as of a year ago, precisely because clusters actually can agglomerate industry risk
rather than mitigate it. If these clusters had been built bottoms-up on entrepreneurial toughness rather
than through cozy supplier-customer proximity, I believe they would have been better equipped to
create opportunity out of crisis.
Cluster strategies actually go against the grain of entrepreneurship in at least one important respect:
entrepreneurship has an intrinsically contrarian element, in which an actor latches onto an opportunity
that others miss, often because the conventional logic damns it as either worthless, impossible, or
stupid. In fact, it is the “job” of the entrepreneur to look for the opportunities on the “left” if the cluster
strategy says “look right.” It is possible that top-down cluster strategies may perversely dull the
entrepreneurial spirit rather than honing it.
Mike Porter said it in 1998
Cluster guru and Harvard Business School professor Mike Porter had it right 12 years ago: governments
wanting to foster clusters should first observe which entrepreneurial ventures have “passed the market
test” left to their own devices before intervening, and help foster clusters around those successes.
Unfortunately, economic policy makers have ignored this necessary condition, trying to start clusters
from scratch. In fact, the bigger challenge is to first foster the conditions that allow entrepreneurs to
“pass the market test.” Government and other public leaders can indeed play a crucial role in fencing off
and enriching the zebra’s breeding grounds, but they have to be clear about how the zebra really gets its
Daniel Isenberg is the founding Executive Director of the Babson Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Project and Professor
of Management Practice at Babson Global. Professor Isenberg has taught at Harvard, Columbia, INSEAD, Technion,
and Reykjavik. From 1987-2004 he lived in Israel and contributed to the entrepreneurial revolution there as an
entrepreneur, venture capitalist, consultant, and educator. A frequent Harvard Business Review contributor, in
June, 2010 Harvard Business Review featured Professor Isenberg’s “How to Start an Entrepreneurial Revolution” as
the “Big Idea” lead article. His popular blogs have appeared in Forbes, Huffington Post, Economist, and Harvard
Business Review Online.
“Sinking together: Italian manufacturing hubs have not withstood the recession as hoped.” The Economist,
October 15, 2009.