How the practice of clustering shapes cluster emergence

Published August 2020 by Professor Jorgen Sandberg


  • Clarifying the processes through which latent clusters become actual clusters is an increasingly important area of research in regional studies and is essential if we are to explain why some nascent agglomerations develop into viable clusters, while others do not.
  • Studies focusing on initiating factors observe that the factors driving cluster emergence are distinct from those driving cluster function, but do not explain why clusters may fail to emerge even when key initiating factors are in place.
  • There is scant empirical insight into (1) how regional actors of various kinds actually exercise system-level agency in pursuit of cluster development; and (2) how the outcomes of such efforts contribute to the path-creation processes enabling cluster emergence

What’s new

  • This study investigates how regional actors exercise system-level agency in order to build and maintain a cluster, and what contribution this makes to cluster emergence. We thus adopt a practice theoretical perspective that directs attention to the actors, activities and understandings through which system-level agency is exercised, but that also remains sensitive to how it is shaped by the historical legacies and resource base of a region.
  • We identify and elaborate on how the ‘practice of clustering’ provides a basis for regional actors to build, develop and maintain a cluster. Our novel model of the ‘practice of clustering’ sheds new light on the mechanisms of cluster emergence by revealing how regional actors’ concerted efforts to (re)structure the institutional and organizational set-up of regions contributes to making cluster emergence more or less likely.
  • We show that the practice of clustering is constituted by four activities – catalysing, coordinating, configuring and deliberating – organized and integrated by the development of a shared understanding of (1) an envisioned cluster future and (2) how to work and act together to achieve this.
  • We show that some ways of practicing clustering better support cluster emergence than others, which subsequently helps explain why some nascent agglomerations develop into functioning and viable clusters, while others do not.

Bottom line

  • Practically, regional actors can help transform budding agglomerations into fully-fledged clusters by deliberately cultivating an effective practice of clustering.
  • The practice of clustering often originates from the spontaneous, highly personal and intuitive agency of individuals who mobilize others around opportunities and issues of common interest.
  • The practice of clustering contributes to the diversity of organizations within the cluster (organizational thickness), built networks (interactions), coordinating artefacts and governance structures (structures of domination), as well as develops a shared understanding the cluster’s purpose, membership and ways of working together (mutual awareness and common agenda).
  • Rich institutional thickness results from the establishment of more inclusive, top-down and bottom-up governance structures, development of a shared understanding of clustering that connected different communities, which enables socialization into the common values, purposes and agenda of the cluster.
  • The different loci from which strategizing in clusters develop (i.e., top-down, centrally led processes versus more autonomous, bottom-up processes) suggests clusters could also be an insightful context for understanding different manifestations of strategy (e.g., deliberate, emergent, ephemeral) and their consequences for the competitiveness of firms, clusters and regions.

Link to paper

Learn more about Practice and Process Studies​.