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Advisory report 36: ‘The future of Flemish cluster policy – Green Paper’

6 May 2024

VARIO states that spearhead clusters are a driver for economic valorization and for addressing societal challenges through R&D&I, and calls for them to be used more explicitly within transformative innovation policy.

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On 27 March 2024, VARIO received a request for advice from minister Brouns on the green paper 'The future of Flemish cluster policy', more specifically on (1) the four proposed scenarios, and the role that the current spearhead clusters can fulfil in them, and (2) whether or not there are strategically important themes missing from the existing (and in the process of being established) spearhead clusters, which can be given the opportunity to grow into spearhead clusters in new domains via a new call for Innovative Business Networks (IBN).

VARIO formulates the following recommendations in this regard:

  • Recommendation 1: Spearhead clusters have a clear place in contemporary innovation policy in Flanders. For their future, VARIO prefers a scenario with primarily an economic mission and with a strong link to transformative innovation policy

VARIO essentially prefers a continuation of the current cluster policy with a rightful focus on economic valorization and a clear role for the societal challenges linked to the transitions.

  • Recommendation 1.1: Nurture the existing strengths of the spearhead cluster organizations

VARIO considers it important that the spearhead clusters (continue to) show the following strengths: strong economic role via bottom-up innovation, high involvement of companies, sufficiently independent/neutral role, facilitator of cooperation, European relevance.

  • Recommendation 1.2: Establish additional expectations

VARIO also takes previous advisory reports into consideration and puts forward additional expectations for the spearhead clusters: make room for pioneers and SMEs, pursue European leverage for SMEs, further develop 'quadruple helix' cooperation and focus more strongly on knowledge diffusion.

  • Recommendation 1.3: And commit to clear evaluation criteria

VARIO is of the opinion that the effectiveness of the cluster policy can only be properly evaluated if these objectives are also clearly and measurably defined. When mobilizing the spearhead cluster for societal challenges, an extension of the evaluation approach is needed.

  • Recommendation 2: Provide the necessary financial support for the renewed mission of spearhead clusters

VARIO considers it important that the clusters are financially supported in their basic operation in order to continue to take up their independent central actor role in a sustainable way. This is also necessary in order to sufficiently maintain the connection between the spearhead clusters and the Flemish government when realizing various transitions. VARIO also considers it important that earmarked funds continue to be made available for the spearhead clusters, and certainly for the inter-cluster projects.

  • Recommendation 3: Embark on a partnership role between the spearhead clusters and VLAIO

To achieve the above recommendations, VARIO advocates a strengthened partnership role for VLAIO in the guidance and follow-up of the spearhead clusters, in addition to the existing funding role. This partnership will be all the more important in addressing societal challenges. In that context it is necessary to collaborate in confidence on achieving the stated objectives of the spearhead clusters in a sufficiently effective manner.

  • Recommendation 4: Make an open call for new strategic themes with rigorous selection and avoid ad hoc initiatives

VARIO considers the time is right for an open call around new strategic themes, favouring a bottom-up approach. VARIO asks to consider whether the calls can take place on a project basis without setting up new organizations/structures. However, if the perspective of a spearhead cluster organization is offered, it is important to set ambitious and clear KPIs in advance.