Apps as an innovation cluster

Bearing is well known for is pioneering work on innovation clusters – I want to add a commentary to a new area of innovation that might be compared to the physical cluster but which is vastly different too. It raises the question of how we integrate the virtual cluster into innovation strategies – a question I can’t answer here but at least wanted to ask.

Virtual clustering (ideagoras, apps projects, virtual communities) is less programmatic than physical clustering and, potentially, has less impact on place, property values, real estate services and infrastructure. Nonetheless property owners and local authorities could be asking themselves how they reap benefit from this new form of innovation.

The most prominent example is Apple’s Apps community – over 35,000 developers from all over the world have created over 150,000 iPhone apps and radically altered the structure of the mobile phone industry – that is some innovation and a huge cluster effect. Clusters in the iPhone world exhibit further characteristics that the traditional innovation cluster theory needs to accommodate.

The first of these is that the actual, ad hoc, clustering effect is often created by individuals with little or no formal training or authority. Developers create ad hoc clusters around code sharing and entrepreneurial issues, for example the Weshare Facebook page and website. And of course the mainstream community of developer sites, away from Apple influence, provide a home for i-series innovations. The “voice” of innovation in this cluster is not necessarily Apple Inc – conferences and distribution channels spring up independently.

Innovation is driven as much by opposition to Apple’s policies as it is by compliance. This is true in the case of sites that, for example, bring into the Apple domain, technologies that Apple has rejected (such as Flash movies) and even political viewpoints that Apple is sensitive about (a recent Pulitzer prize winning app from cartoonist Mark Fiore was rejected by Apple’s App Store because it ridiculed political figures. ” a violation of the iPhone Developer Program License Agreement, which bars any apps whose content in “Apple’s reasonable judgement may be found objectionable, for example, materials that may be considered obscene, pornographic, or defamatory.” And it is true of hacker sites.

The question is – if more innovation becomes virtual, how can the traditional beneficiaries of physical clusters continue to benefit from dynamic innovation clusters? All innovation is subject to unpredictable disruption, so structured models of innovation are, and always should be – righ tnow the significant disruption is to innovation models.

There are probably six types of innovation cluster:

  • Innovation through compact physical clustering (e.g. a science park)
  • Innovation through close distributed physical clustering (urban clusters)
  • Clusters in industrial and commercial verticals (health care, road telematics)
  • Apps (Apple is only one example)
  • Ideagoras ( is one example –, Dell ideastorm)
  • Geo-clusters (the evolution of location based virtual services)

Bearing’s latest work is exploring how the virtual and physical can work hand in hand to continue creating value added options to physical space and the enjoyment of physical networking. What’s clear from the explostion of activity around software apps is that they have unleashed innovation potential, they are not physically aligned to any one location, and they are not isolated (ideagoras and geo-clustering are equally important).

Here’s the summary: As we are seeing significant ad hoc innovation clustering on such a significant scale, what are the new ingredients we need to bring to physical clusters so that regional, city and local objectives can still be met, or be met with improved outputs?

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