The economy in the Alpine region is dominated by SMEs involved in manufacturing. One way to shield companies from an economic crisis is through business clusters that promote international networking and an openness to new markets. AlpClusters2020, a project involving the Steinbeis-Europa-Zentrum (SEZ) and other partners in France, Italy, Austria and Switzerland, aims to promote business clusters in order to strengthen the competitiveness of the Alpine region and promote innovation.
With backing from Alpine Space, an INTERREG IV B program of the European Union, between September 2013 and the end of 2014, the SEZ joined forces with seven partner organizations in the Alpine region to network innovative business clusters in a total of six key regions. With the objective of improving transnational collaboration, the project partners analyzed and evaluated over 70 EU projects to examine the experience gathered with the implementation of activities specifically aimed at improving internationalization among cluster members.
What measures can clusters use to support SMEs with internationalization? To establish this, the project partners carried out a survey in the affected Alpine regions, interviewing cluster managers, representatives of the institutions involved in cluster policy making and political representatives. As a result, they pinpointed five instruments that could be considered successful practice.
In first place came pilot actions which actively involve SMEs in the project – for example, by setting up pilot equipment or demonstration facilities. Second was the cross-border promotion of projects. One form this could take is vouchers for forging cross-border contacts or the offering of backing for collaborative applications within the clusters with additional political support. The third instrument that was identified was the drafting of a cluster internationalization strategy. Cluster managers should work with cluster members to create a strategy to facilitate the effective internationalization of its members. For many clusters, this is a key prerequisite for sustainable cross-border collaboration. In fourth place came events such as networking days, cluster conferences and themed roadshows, but also delegation trips and joint exhibitions at international fairs. Finally, the fifth instrument that was identified was training, not only for cluster managers but also for SMEs themselves. For example this could be training on intercultural collaboration, R&D project management, innovation management or exchanging employees. Personal contacts are a key success factor in this respect, such that physically meeting up takes precedence over virtual interaction.
The findings were assessed and expanded at so-called AlpCafé workshops in the five affected regions. Finally, policy recommendations were pulled together for the European Commission to lay foundations for the funding period 2014-2020. These were presented publicly, including at a closing conference in Salzburg in October 2014 as part of the Alpine Space 2020 Conference. As a partner of the project, SEZ was responsible for the delivery of activities in Baden-Württemberg, for an analysis of experience with European initiatives and for working up the policy recommendations.