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Research and innovation

The Cambridge Cluster – lessons of obliquity, serendipity and proximity on the road to innovation

23 April 2019
There was a clear sense of the Cambridge cluster as an entity with its own character, history and distinct qualities.

Professor Rick Delbridge spent last Michaelmas Term as Visiting Fellow at Sidney Sussex College, University of Cambridge. As Cardiff University Dean of Research, Innovation and Enterprise, Professor Delbridge had the opportunity to view the Cambridge regional innovation ecosystem or ‘cluster,’ and to speak openly with a wide cross-section of cluster participants. Here, he writes about the opportunities and challenges that surround the ‘Cambridge Phenomenon.’      

During my time at Cambridge, I sought to answer two fundamental questions: how does the Cambridge cluster work, and what aspects will be of interest to my own institution and region here in Cardiff as we deepen our innovation activity?

I met around 30 people closely involved in the Cambridge regional innovation ecosystem: academics, university innovation and enterprise professionals, entrepreneurs and investors, managers of innovation centres, and senior corporate managers. Their views provided an array of valuable insights. Here I seek to provide a very succinct summary of what is a complex and deeply embedded phenomenon.    

First, there was a clear sense of the Cambridge cluster as an entity with its own character, history and distinct qualities.

Proximity of the cluster (both physical and in terms of social relationships) was routinely cited (‘Cambridge is a village’). Closeness made relationships and communication easier, and provided cohesiveness and coherence to activity. However, a number of people noted the ‘politics’ of a village could make it difficult to gain entry into tightly formed social settings (‘It’s very difficult to get involved, you need to prove yourself’).

Serendipity featured in discussions around the cluster’s original development and in terms of how it functions (chance meetings, the cluster as a ‘melting pot’ etc.), but it must be matched by a capacity to be responsive and to collaborate in relatively open-ended ways.

There are multiple networks and ‘communities’ that promote and sustain this activity, most of which are relatively ‘bottom-up’ and self-organized.

A sense of identity informed the views of the vast majority of people I met. Many referred to the historical development of the cluster, the central importance of scientific discovery, and the cluster’s unique qualities. 

Many also identified with a proactively constructed and widely promoted ‘cluster narrative.’

The ‘Cambridge Phenomenon’, the (re-)construction of the historical narratives around the emergence of the cluster, and the continuing prominent contribution of key individuals have all helped to build and maintain this cluster identity. The ‘story’ has influenced how people understand and shape the cluster’s development.

Cambridge’s geographical position and where it is not (London, Silicon Valley or Oxford) were also key to this identity, along with characteristics including openness, sharing, connectedness, informality, the celebration of success, collective endeavour, and the organic and emergent nature of many of the activities.

“Two particularly striking components – ambiguity and obliquity – define the cluster’s functionality. They help distinguish the Cambridge cluster from many other broadly similar phenomena.”

Individuals routinely described circumstances where there were no established ‘rules’, and where more than one set of conventions existed: a characteristic of Cambridge University itself over many centuries.

A lack of clear and inflexible rules and conventions provides space for innovative ways of thinking and doing, but ambiguity can be inefficient, and seen as unsupportive by ‘newcomers’.

Whilst ambiguity promotes a permissive and participative approach, some cluster participants feel ‘people are left to sink or swim’ and that problems arise in seeking to ‘leverage’ strengths and present a coordinated position when much remains unspoken.

Obliquity suggests goals are more likely to be achieved if tackled indirectly. Individuals regularly described how the cluster grew through ‘benign neglect’, ‘it’s a case of trial and error and experimentation’, etc.

An oblique approach builds on constant adaptation and centres on the end itself, not the means. Successes and failures lead to the reassessment of objectives and activities.

Views on obliquity varied widely. Some individuals were positive, whilst others bemoaned a lack of coordination, the proliferation of activities, and the failure to directly ‘leverage’ resources. A small number even said efforts to be more harmonised had been blocked, contradicting the espoused ‘open’ character of the cluster.

How will the cluster adapt to its changing context? The prospect of change prompted varied responses. Should it be incremental or radical, evolutionary or strategically directed? Some felt a more interventionist and centrally coordinated approach might disrupt the ecology; others viewed this as a ‘natural progression’ and believed the system would adapt.

Integrity lies at the heart of this question. Can change be strategically coordinated whilst remaining true to the principles that smooth the current functioning of the cluster? And if more radical, disruptive change is needed, will the integrity of the cluster in terms of its ‘completeness’ and cohesion survive?

The question of the cluster’s future direction prompted a wide array of opinions. One was a sense of ’generational’ ageing as key figures near retirement. There were divergent views on how much central coordination was possible to tackle that generational shift, and a sense that change was coming whether or not the cluster sought to coordinate at a strategic level.

“Research in regional economic development shows resilient clusters are those that can disconnect their cycle of development from the lifecycle of the technologies at their heart.”

Clusters will be resilient when their knowledge networks succeed in reinforcing the core while maintaining knowledge flows between the core of established actors and the periphery of new entrants.

Through encouraging connectivity between the core and periphery, a cluster can evolve towards a new explorative and engineering phase, embracing and developing technologies and avoiding over-reliance on the technological bases of past success.

Clusters can weaken if they act to restrict novelty of knowledge flows and the creative stimulation from new entrants. Likewise, strong networks ease communication but they can inhibit innovation as relationships often form amongst like-minded actors.

Previous work on networks of innovation (including some of my own research) has advanced the value of the proactive search for new partners, the nurturing of new potential ties and the maintenance of latent ties as a source of future knowledge and resources.

Actions such as fostering system diversity and encouraging modularity can help clusters weather economic ‘system shocks’. Policy development needs to shift away from steady-state thinking, and plan for alternative futures or scenarios.

During my time in Cambridge, it was not clear to me that ‘policy development’ at cluster level was a prominent or influential activity, notwithstanding the mobilization of some activity at this level.

A body of research, including work by Cardiff Professors Gillian Bristow and Adrian Healy, has shown polycentric and agile governance arrangements can help clusters to flex, where single, central organizations would struggle to handle complexity.

A policy approach that acknowledges the central significance of nonlinearity, unpredictability and the importance of feedback and learning means clusters will require effective data management systems, swift transfers of knowledge and learning between key actors, and flexible institutions if they are to survive.

Overall, the Cambridge Cluster seems well placed to grow in future: effective networking, responsiveness, and flexibility are characteristic of how the cluster currently self-organizes.

While Cardiff and Cambridge are very different places and universities, there are lessons for us to learn: the concrete frames of our latest Innovation Campus buildings will soon be in place, redefining both the city’s skyline and our own approach to innovation here in Wales. We need to ensure our policies and practices evolve in ways that promote and support innovation, that we are receptive to an openness of communication and collaboration, and that we build shared narratives and trust to guide and sustain our shared enterprise as a university and a region.  

Professor Rick Delbridge is the University Dean of Research, Innovation and Enterprise and Academic Lead for the forthcoming Social Science Research Park.