Encouraging innovation has been high on the agenda in France for at least 350 years. Since Colbert. The worldwide flavour of the last few decades has been clusters. This is what Jorma Nieminen, another Finnovation speaker last April, actually created in the 70s and 80s, when he led Nokia and the Finnish telecoms industry into producing really mobile phones. Here are our ITMPs with him and a few early models!
Having been a key player in the emergence of the (world class even if now in decline) Finnish telecoms cluster, Jorma is now finishing his Ph.D. to find out the added value that clusters have to national innovation policies. He would have really enjoyed this morning’s seminar at the Ecole des Mines. It was addressing precisely that issue.
Thierry Weil (Stéphanie Fen Chong’s thesis supervisor) offered us (about 20 people) an interesting menu:
First, Patrick Haouat of Erdyn Consultants, ran through the main findings of last year’s evaluation of the French Poles de Compétitivité. There are about 70 such clusters in all, each of which was evaluated.
Then Patrick Coquet, Directeur Général Délégué of the Cap Digital cluster, shared his thoughts on the audit process.
Finally, there was an interesting question and answer and discussion session with certain participants who were close to the heart of France’s innovation policy.
Note that the Finnish cluster, like Silicon Valley, “just happened”. No plan. No central authority. In contrast, the French clusters are radial – “centre out”. That is, all have offices and administrations (ranging from 5 to 35 full time equivalents). All have calls for tender. Projects don’t just “happen” or “emerge”, they are solicited All have a magic stamp that labels some projects and not others. This confers power and prestige. The stamped and labelled projects get funding more easily. The Poles’ mission is to generate projects, act on the innovation ecosystems and to fulfil some kind of public service.
What did we learn before the half time gong sounded?
1. The French clusters were launched about 10 years ago. The first phase was evaluated in 2008. The 2012 evaluation had adressed the second, growth phase. The findings and feedback were to help the clusters in their third phase 2013-2020. A minority of the Poles accepted and immediately acted on the audit recommendations. Most said they needed time to think and adjust. A few have been immobile and are virtually “in denial”.
2. An overall conclusion was that the Poles should focus more on the results which the thousands of projects have produced, emphasise commercialising the results and be open to interclustering (clusters of clusters).
3. There was no explicit and official ranking, but by cross referencing various spider diagrams and other matrices, the Poles quickly worked out whether they were in the top 10, bottom 10, or the bulging midriff.
4. Future expectations concerning objectives are that (1) each pole should have its strategy and corresponding road map. Forecast emerging markets and key technologies. (2) The projects should be managed in a portfolio. On the one hand R&D projects, on the other close to market projects. (3) There should be more focus on industrialisation.
5. As far as methods go, the Poles should be more embedded into the innovation ecosystem.
6. The business model issue should be addressed. 50/50 public/private financing should be respected and ideally the projects should fly with their own resources.
7. Information systems were vital. Ideally a general purpose Poles IS could be designed and used by all clusters.
8. Globally, phase 2 had been successful. 80% of SMEs were pleased, despite the fact that large companies had paid in 5% and taken out 15%. Someone knowledgeable said “large companies have nothing to complain about as far as the Poles go”.
9. The evaluation/audit exercise should be better synchronised. Most Poles were suffering from indicator burn out. Thierry Weill compared it to pavements being dug up 4 times a year as the gas, electricity, water and optical fibre operated in uncoordinated fashion.
10. Never do evaluations at national election time. The evaluators were still not sure how the current, socialist government was planning to exploit the results of a survey commissioned under a conservative one so far, not one recommendation has been implemented.
Then Patrick Coquet. The Cap Digital cluster has over 700 members (650 SMEs, 50 universities [including ESIEE Paris], 25 large companies.) with 15 new applicants a month. 5M € annual budget. The four key missions are: encouraging R&D and innovation; coaching SMEs to raise their innovation maturity levels; tweaking the digital ecosystem in the Paris region and raising awareness and attracting attention via the annual Futur-en-Seine festival. (Cap is based near the Bastille and it’s a nice place to visit – always lots going on!).
The evaluation process was fine, he said, although feeding the nth indicator ogre stops us from doing our main job. A well designed information system would really help too. I wondered how you could a) finance such an IS project which would serve many stakeholders of which no single one has enough resources to pay the consultants who’d design and implement it? Maybe some cluster crowd funding? b) manage all the contradictory user demands. But it would be challenging and fun to do!
Anyway, as a result of the audit process Cap Digital adjusted its strategy. 1. Less “technology focus” and more “market focus”. This breaks down into 8 finalised markets. An 8 market observatory will be fed by Big Data, since statistics are hard to come by. “Thematic communities” become “market communities”. Technology push goes to market pull. 2. More internationalisation: European Union, Silicon Valley, East Coast USA and Latin America. And Asia? Not yet! (security issues). 3. Measure Cap’s impact and added value better. Stanford University’s Martha Russell has already started helping to measure this “tracking of traces”. [And I know for a fact that ITMP’s Pierre Pinet (ITMP12) did an excellent job for the Advancity Pole de Competitivité (which is housed at ESIEE). They commissioned a MAPCO project from us in March 2012 on how to measure the impact of the Pole in terms of relationship building. Pierre took this on single handedly, got a brilliant mark and went on to do his internship and professional thesis under John Gaynard’s supervision and wrote and published a book called Pour une Stratégie de Pilotage Relationnel des Organisations
Patrick also suggested two policy improvements: 1. The EU should recognise clusters as an actor sui generis (like labs or companies). Maybe this will happen with the new EU R&D Public Private Partnerships PPs (like the new European Robotics PPP we heard about at ISIS). 2. His “pet obsession” is that some projects (not companies) should be fast tracked and crowd funded. I can definitely remember Antti Joensu, from the Finnish Ministry of Industry, telling a Paris audience in 2002 or 3 at the Finnish cultural institute that the TEKES was able to allot money in 48 hours if speed was of the essence. Finnovation! SOS!
Lastly, he said, if we were less cash starved and less bank dependent we could really “think business model”…
Then came the questions and comments
1. How deep and qualitative was the evaluation process? Was it just statistics and dashboards? Was there discussion time? Controversy?…Not really, there was a strict budget and not enough time. A far cry from the 15 day evaluation which every Belgian cluster gets. 0,1% of the value of the total French cluster project portfolio went on evaluation. Hardly enough! Thierry made the point that evaluation was schizoid and what he called melon philosophy: green on the outside and red inside. Good enough results so programmes go on being funded but critical enough for practices to improve. In 2008, we had recommended pre-filling out the evaluation forms (like tax forms), so that precious time would be spent on adding information with real value.
2. Gazing plaintively at the Luxembourg gardens, a speaker reminded us that the French innovation policy support system was not like a “jardin à la française”
but more like a “millefeuille”.
Many contributing stakeholders. Hard to rationalise information collection…. Then he perked up. Internationalisation was vital. So also was interfacing between different clusters. Aerospace – good! Green Aerospace – even better!! Why not try the special Investissements d’Avenir fund for money, he suggested…
3. Are the best cases – success stories – and worst cases – failure stories – accessible like porcini
or hidden like tartufi?
The answer wasn’t really clear.
4. What is the ROI of all these cluster investments, asked a former industrialist? We were reminded again that 80% of the SMEs said they had benefited. Leadership – “the cluster was like an antidote to the loneliness of being CEO”. Credibility – “I would never have got into the US market if our company hadn’t been in the cluster”. Evangelisation – putting the spotlight on hot topics like Big Data or 3D printing and on Kondratiev wavelets like smart devices.
5. My neighbour informed us that when the 2008 evaluation team had suggested that some evaluations be lightweight and others heavyweight, the clusters had protested – they wanted equitable treatment! Some, however, also protested that the evaluation criteria were too standardised – each wanted a made to measure evaluation garment!
6. But do the clusters really add any value, someone else asked? Jorma Nieminen would have loved the question! This, we understood, was out of scope. However a short discussion flared up on which innovation facilitating services could be handled by private actors. The Cap Digital Cluster had identified 34 services for each of which a short list of 3 or 4 private consultants existed. We were back to public private partnerships and mixed innovation steering. “Perhaps the insoluble residue could be left to the Pole itself” wondered Thierry Weill.
That was the final gong.