Launching an idea is the hardest and costliest part of the innovation process and the more innovative (high risk/high reward) the idea, the greater the challenge.

There are many repeated tales of folks in their garage inventing the next game changer: the pacemaker, the Macintosh or even rocket ships. But an often-overlooked aspect of their success is that all of these epic ‘start-ups’ were located in innovation hubs with clusters of resources, networks of knowledgeable people, and access to the space, support systems and client base they needed to come to life.

But how do certain regions become innovation hubs? Why do certain industries cluster in a region? What are the unique characteristics and best practices of a region that are supporting systemic growth?  And since not every neighborhood is a Silicon Valley or Medical Alley, how do you identify the resources in your area that can fuel your growth?


First let’s look at what defines a regional cluster:

A cluster is a concentration of related industries. It may consist of companies, suppliers, and service providers as well as government agencies, universities and other institutions. Any one of these entities can initiate a cluster’s growth.

Clusters capture important linkages of technology, skills, and information that cross firms and industries. As we mentioned in our last post, an assessment of resources and their connection points is crucial for growth and resilience. Regional clusters are making those connections and with innovators in the mix, the connections gain momentum and the clusters grow into an innovation hub.

Examples of prominent hubs in the U.S. include; financial services in New York City, information technology in Silicon Valley, video production and distribution in Los Angeles and if you're in the Midwest - it's agriculture, health care and the maker community.



How can you spot clusters in your community?

Sometimes, as in the case of Silicon Valley, clusters and innovation hubs are obvious.  But often that is not the case and if you are innovating in out-state areas or in emerging categories you may need to find the small bubbling hotspots where other innovators are pushing the boundaries forward and clusters are forming.


Four ways to find clusters and connection points:

  1. Assess a region’s profile – Examine what assets already exist in your category and what untapped or under-recognized resources also exist. What are the leading industries, skill sets and other civic, cultural or natural resources that attract others to the area? You may find unexpected clusters that can support you.
  2. Uncover regional insights – What is driving and prohibiting growth in the region. Do the resources exist but in isolation? Is the area ripe for disruption? Is there an unmet need that you fulfill?   Which part of the cluster exists and which is absent?
  3. Connect with regional partners – Track best practices, industry issues and trends by auditing and conversing with relevant organizations, trade groups, and advocates. Especially in emerging categories where there may not yet exist an online platform for sharing, local events can be illuminating and create the connection or cluster your innovation needs to mature.
  4. Try the US Cluster Mapping Tool
    This tool is collecting data at the state, county and region level to look for industry patterns and indicators of innovation. It is an experiment in itself and is open and free to all.

Clusters are a striking feature of all successful and growing economies. States use cluster audits to develop their clean energy strategies and fuel job growth. Start-ups leverage them to attract talent and investment and innovators require them to overcome old paradigms and achieve proof of concept.  The cluster in your region may be waiting for you – the innovator – to be the link in the chain that lights up a new industry.

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