Interview with Merete Daniel Nielsen, CEO of Cluster Excellence Denmark and President of the TCI Network

Submitted by Alina Danieles… on 12 November 2019

We had the pleasure of discussing with one of Europe’s well-known cluster experts, Merete Daniel Nielsen, supporting in her position of CEO of Cluster Excellence Denmark the Danish clusters on competence development, professionalization and internationalization. She is as well President of the TCI Network and an expert on innovation, regional development and clusters having 20 years of experience within the field at an analytical, strategic and policy level both regionally, nationally and internationally.

ECCP: What is Cluster Excellence Denmark about, what are its mission and services offered?

MDN: We can describe our activities in five core areas: bridge, engage, work on the ground, document cluster success and internationalise. Cluster Excellence Denmark was set up in 2014 as part of the national cluster strategy in Denmark, supported by 5-6 ministries, regions, municipalities and a whole range of stakeholders aiming to improve and professionalise the efforts in developing clusters. Following a public call for tenders, my company won the competition. Concretely, the focus of our activities is on professionalization, creation of inter-cluster collaboration, competence development and internationalisation of clusters.

ECCP: It would be very helpful in this context to learn more about the Danish cluster landscape.

MDN: With pleasure. It is important to mention from the very beginning our approach that has been to map, bridge and engage the whole cluster community in Denmark. The Danish cluster landscape shows a mix of cluster organisations receiving funding from different sources: both via public funding schemes as well as private sources (including membership fees). Five years ago the Danish cluster environment was rather fragmented. Now, it is very well integrated and the clusters collaborate at both strategic and operational level. Cluster Excellence Denmark recently published a report documenting how important this “integrated approach” is – and that independent and privately led cluster organisations perform better than other types of clusters. Currently our organization is very active in facilitating specific consolidations between the leading clusters and their complex eco-systems in Denmark. Right now we work with 39 clusters in various sectors (you can find them here on our website).

ECCP: How do you support the Danish clusters in their development journey?

MDN: Hands-on support and cluster-to-cluster dialogue have been our core methods. All our activities are co-developed together with the clusters on a need-based approach. Several activities are even driven by the clusters where we act as facilitators. Such a close connection with the clusters along the years enabled  the Cluster Excellence Denmark team to produce a range of tools supporting them on topics like matchmaking, internationalization, branding, strategic development and funding.

Further, an important component in the professionalization of the Danish clusters, has been the European Cluster Excellence Initiative (ECEI) – known for the gold, silver and bronze labels. Today Denmark is world leader by the number of gold labelled clusters per number of inhabitants. Over the years Cluster Excellence Denmark has conducted 135 certifications leading to a very deep understanding of strengths and challenges in each cluster. For the Danish clusters the certifications meant getting strategic insights for their development. In particular, the benchmarking is key in developing relevant support services.

Clusterization is important and having a label gives a strong signal / is an easy way to communicate that you have achieved a certain level of quality. We are also the only country in Europe that did an evaluation of the cluster labelling showing that Danish clusters are happy with the label and use it both for the internal improvement of processes (it brings a quality check on their activities, to look deeper at the members’ structure, the services offered, to evaluate the funding sources, professionalize the way strategy work is done, better understanding the need for a good strategy developed with the members and its implementation), as well as for external promotion both at the national and international levels.

Currently the Danish clusters undergo a process of consolidation – moving from 40 clusters to 10-12 and the labelling and certification approach was part of the process of understanding the ecosystem, how you can work with other stakeholders and how you can collaborate within your specialization.

We are also happy that we could contribute with our knowledge and experience in the further development of the European cluster labelling, for example the bronze label cannot be obtained by just any organisation, but there is now a minimum of criteria that need to be checked and fulfilled before undergoing the assessment. And also the gold label will look more into the impact part.

ECCP: It is not enough to only develop and carry out quality services for the clusters, it is just as important to communicate about them – and their results.

MDN: Oh, yes. Definitely. One of our mottos is “Clusters work – show it!” Documenting the impact of clusters has also been a key activity. For 13 years data has been collected on the results and impacts of the Danish clusters. In 2014 they reached out to over 12.000 companies; now they engage with more than 18.000 companies. This means a growth of 50% in just five years! Over the time many different analyses on productivity, innovation and internationalization have been done to document the impact of clusters. In addition, we see that sharing specific stories of successful collaboration in newsletters, on the homepage, on different social media platforms and in the printed / visual media was - and is! - important to show to the broader society the importance and impact of clusters. This is why, together with the clusters,we are running different communication campaigns, such as the recent one carried out during the high-level C40 Mayors Summit the 8-10th of October in Copenhagen.

ECCP: What can you tell us about the strategic cluster approach in Denmark?

MDN: What we work on is a strategic strengthening of the clusters. And what is really happening now is that the companies are stepping up

Throughout the five years, the competence development and professionalization of the clusters in Denmark has been a key focus. The core topics have been communication and branding of clusters, internationalization and strategic development. Especially during the last two years the further strengthening and consolidation of clusters was high on the political agenda. Cluster Excellence Denmark has developed a new tool to support the consolidation between / among them. In the spring of 2020 we will see the results with the new consolidated superclusters in Denmark’s new smart specialization strategy. Especially the companies have taken the lead in this process and are really stepping forward highlighting clusters as a core instrument / ecosystem for their development.

ECCP: As President of the TCI Network, the internationalisation of clusters must be one of the themes very close to your heart.

MDN: In today’s highly interconnected world, we look at internationalization as an integrated part of clusters’ services. Clusters also help SMEs to become more international – especially in the more innovative areas that can be very tricky to handle. A core part of the journey over the last five years has been to understand the clusters’ unique role on internationalization. This has been done of course in close collaboration with the clusters as well as with many stakeholders working around internationalization. Especially the cluster-to-cluster collaborative approach seems very efficient, allowing clusters across borders to tap into each other’s eco-systems – and helping SMEs to find the best and most relevant collaboration partners. The gathering of data has played an important role in understanding the clusters’ role in the internationalization process.

It is part of our job to make internationalisation more integrated in the cluster and understand what is the role of the cluster organisation in the process, what are the areas that should not disappear from their agenda – or perhaps leave these activities to other stakeholders in the ecosystem. We can see that although we are a small country, 5 million people, our Danish clusters help around 1000 companies to reach out and involve in innovative collaborations with partners in 60 countries around the world. Of course, a lot of attention is given to the neighbouring markets like Germany, Sweden, Netherlands, France, but there is also a lot happening outside Europe. And for us that means looking ahead to the new challenges: how can we support more and better this specific journey? Because if we expect our clusters to go to Canada or US or China, we are also aware that it takes more time and the risks are higher. We see a lot of cluster-to-cluster collaboration taking place in this area, where like-minded counterparts get together to address such challenges in a joint manner – like the European Strategic Cluster Partnerships for Going International with the support offered by the ECCP to identify these potential cooperation partners.

Just as important is the knowledge collaboration, bringing international knowledge to Denmark or Danish knowledge abroad and of course, the ultimate goal is to induce business-to-business collaboration. Not in the direction of supporting just exports or business promotion, but more keeping the cluster focus on innovation. Before exporting robots you have to develop innovation within Denmark, through innovation collaboration. Such an approach has consequences on the types of services clusters offer: doing a study tour or a fair visit is surely helpful, but it might not be the area where the clusters have the biggest impact; therefore a more focused approach should be on supporting their members to enter the international value chains. We see this happening in the cross-border superclusters (meta-clusters) for example in the field of life sciences or energy where it is helpful to combine competences in the Nordic countries or across Europe and with their innovative approach to go globally.

ECCP: Cluster Excellence Denmark recently published a study about clusters in the circular economy. Tell us more about how does this approach grasp into the reality of Danish clusters? Is it a top-down or a bottom-up theme? Is it because of the visions cluster organisations develop with their members seeing potential opportunities for growth and contribution to the Societal Development Goals (SDGs)?

MDN: The increased environmental awareness changed a lot and very rapidly. In our paper we mention that there are at least 250 green clusters in Europe but we also see that these clusters are usually very interlinked with clusters from other sectors, sharing their knowledge towards finding solutions towards a transition to the circular economy. There is without any doubt also a lot of political interest in such a development. In order to showcase the role clusters play in this process we did this brochure, together with many stakeholders, among which Enterprise Europe Network. So we did a survey among our Danish clusters to get some facts on the core role of clusters. These show that clusters in Denmark are doing well in helping in the circular transition, bringing in new competences and knowledge and also helping with the development of new projects in this field. The brochure also shows what kind of services cluster organisations can provide and given their number in Europe it becomes pretty clear that their contribution in delivering the green deal of the new President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, can be very strong. Because they have the circular economy policies and clusters are key to bring these policies into action. We also learned about cases when clusters are instrumental in attracting funding for this transition, by facilitating access to either public or private financing for SMEs. We see the opportunity of clusters aligning with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), an area broader than circular economy. Another area with potential to look into is that of public procurement and how cluster organisations can support SMEs get involved into these processes and projects.

ECCP: Thank you for your time to share with the ECCP community insights into the activities of Cluster Excellence Denmark!

MDN: Thank you for the opportunity to do it!

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