Clusters as creative environments

Within cluster groups of companies, exchanges promote the free movement of ideas and therefore creativity.

How do you choose where to locate your company so as to maximize creativity? Switzerland has many clusters, i.e. groups of companies from a given sector in the same geographical location. For example, Basel is well-known for its pharmaceutical industry cluster, Zurich for its finance industry cluster and La Chaux-de-Fonds for its watch industry cluster.

Most clusters bring together companies working in cutting-edge sectors. They generate very high level jobs, particularly in research and development, and attract workers from all over the world. In addition, these networks are often organized in such a way so as to strengthen links and interactions between companies and training institutions. They therefore seem to constitute environments which particularly lend themselves to brainstorming and creativity.

Switzerland contributes greatly to development of its clusters, notably with the help of economic development agencies. This is a way of concentrating innovation and attracting foreign companies. The number of clusters in Switzerland differs depending on the definition chosen. The study “Clusters in the Swiss economy” conducted by Eco’Diagnostic, commissioned by the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), recorded 22 in 2008, representing a total of more than 200,000 jobs. These are listed in the table below:

Sector Region Jobs
Finance Zurich 40,120
Advisory services Zurich 24,856
Watch industry La Chaux-de-Fonds 22,840
Advisory services Geneva 21,729
Pharmaceutical industry Bâle-Ville 19,592
Insurance Zurich 18,794
Finance Geneva 17,344
Software Zurich 14,728
Machinery Wil 7,788
Electricity Baden 6,127
Plastics Rheintal 5,423
Textiles Saint-Gall 4,487
Paper Soleure 4,203
R&D in natural sciences Bâle-Ville 3,848
Electronics Baden 2,612
Chemicals Aarau 2,053
Soap Geneva 1,907
Automobile industry Limmattal 1,903
Clothing Mendrisio 1,569
Textiles Aarau 1,564
R&D in natural sciences Lausanne 1,533
Jewelry Geneva 630

Source: SECO, Clusters in the Swiss economy: a statistical view and a political view, Eco’Diagnostic, Paul H. Dembrinski (dir.), 2008.

Boston and Silicon Valley, two clusters with opposing destinies

The opposing destinies of two technology clusters, at first glance very similar, provide important lessons about creativity. From the 1960s to the mid-1970s, the most innovative companies in new technologies in the US were located along Route 128, near Boston. Digital Equipment Corporation and Lotus were located there, not far from renowned universities like MIT and Harvard.

However, these companies experienced a decline in the early 1980s. The Boston cluster was gradually replaced by a small rural town in California called San José. This was to become Silicon Valley, one of the most innovative regions in the world.

How can this development be explained? The creativity of a region seems to depend on its capacity to generate maximum interaction and to allow ideas to circulate freely. Along Route 128, companies communicated very little with each other and most employees were bound by non-competition clauses which prevented them from going to work for a neighboring company. By contrast, in California, start-ups had no choice but to collaborate and swap engineers, due to their small size and lack of funds.

Founded in 1975, the Homebrew Computer Club is a typical example of this type of horizontal integration. The engineers in Silicon Valley were there to network, swap tips or present their latest discoveries. Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs met there and later collaborated to develop the first Apple computer, a revolutionary innovation.

Sources: Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

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Last modification 27.09.2019

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