A note from Nick Sturge, Engine Shed Director: What’s a cluster? What’s an ecosystem? Does it matter?

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We generally talk about a ‘cluster’ as a grouping of companies in a particular industry sector where, if you were to draw a heat map, you’d see a ‘clustering’ around a geography. Bristol and Bath is increasingly referred to as a vibrant UK ‘tech-cluster’ but of course, it is also strong in the creative sector and others, such as aerospace.

Yet we tend not to speak so much about about the ‘aerospace cluster’, probably because it is dominated by some 600 lb gorillas, albeit with a vast, mostly vertical supply chain across the South West. So density in a geography doesn’t play so well here but I’d argue it’s still a cluster in some respects, because it is a valuable grouping of businesses that are either inter-related, inter-dependent or with some common interests, such as their talent pool.

Perhaps that sounds a bit academic, but it’s not. It’s important to understand where there is a cluster of like-minded companies as, from an economic development perspective, it is helpful to identify how that cluster can be nurtured.

The value of having a cluster is multitudinous: fluidity of talent, for example, may sound like a disadvantage (your top software developer might be tempted to move to the sexier company next door) but the reality is that more companies in the sector and the location make recruitment of the best talent (e.g. from abroad or elsewhere in the UK) easier. A density of similar companies also attracts investors, lawyers, specialists, the media and so on. That all makes a cluster a better location to grow your business.

What we’d also like to see (and this happens a bit) is that with a strong cluster, the teachers and parents in our schools are able to encourage their young people to consider working in the local clusters. I’m sure that most people in the area know that there’s a thriving aerospace sector, but do they know about the tech and creative clusters, or even know what these mean? That’s why we do much of our Diverse Workforce for the Future project work, and support the Bristol Technology Festival.

Another thing we do, and have done on and off for the last 12 years, is encourage the hubs, accelerators, incubators, work spaces, and programmes in the tech and creative clusters to collaborate and share – even if they are direct commercial competitors. I like to think it’s the “Bristol way” – we know how to balance cooperation and competition. We call it The Bristol & Bath Network, and this group meets every month for coffee and croissants to share, ultimately building trust and understanding. I think it’s a powerful group and concept. Long may it continue.

Which brings me to ecosystems. We view ‘the ecosystem’ as the holistic economic environment that allows businesses (for profit and not-for-profit) to thrive without dependency on public intervention. Nudges from the state, sure, but not a dependency. Otherwise it would be a ‘farm’.

So that means the professional services, the property market, the investment community, the educators, the talent pool, the infrastructure (housing, transport etc.) and the support environment (like SETsquared, FutureSpace, UnitDX, Spike Design etc.) all working together to a common purpose: economic prosperity.

Arguably a cluster is only viable if it’s within an ecosystem.

The importance of ‘place making’ then becomes important, to raise the profile – to externals and locals – of a cluster (in a geography) which supports all those virtuous facets of a cluster. And ecosystem.

I was at No.10 the other day (as one does) with the UK Tech Clusters Group, of which Ben Shorrock (TechSPARK) and I are members, sharing what we do and know about Bristol and Bath phenomenon. Of course, they’ve heard it all before because Bristol and Bath is held up as an exemplar, primarily because of the collaborative spirit that exists here. When ministers or government officials visit, they hear the same story from everyone they meet.

This is, of course, because it’s all about people. Some of us are getting long in the tooth and starting to retire (as if!) – or at least move on to pastures new. Fortunately there’s a great crop of younger talent stepping up to the plate, and we are working with our peers on nurturing, on so many levels, nascent talent as founders and ecosystem leaders. The future is very bright.

Now to the news some of you have been waiting for. The new role of “Head of Engine Shed” has been advertised. You can find it here. It incorporates the role of SRF CEO – SRF being the subsidiary of the University of Bristol that operates SETsquared and Engine Shed – and clearly positions Engine Shed (as an ecosystem development project and venue) alongside the SETsquared Bristol business incubator.

I really, really, really hope that someone emerges from the local ecosystem – perhaps from one of our community partners – to have a crack at this exciting role. There is a lot to play for and a huge opportunity to make an impact on the city region and build stronger connections between the research and teaching base here, and the broad and beautifully diverse community of businesses (in all sectors) and people. Please share as widely as you can – it’s a role for someone to make their own, taking what we’ve got now and, dare I say, building in just a tad more structure and sophistication.

This role needs to play a part in place making, cluster building, ecosystem development – delivering strategic, indirect and direct value to Engine Shed’s parents, the University of Bristol, Bristol City Council and the city region, whilst maintaining the valuable neutral brand that it has become renowned for.

It’s about building a sustainable and inclusive ecosystem that works for everybody. So that everyone wins.

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