Conservation clusters: making the case



Silicon Valley, Bangalore, Shanghai. At one time or another, each of these locations, among others, has become home to a successful ‘business cluster’ of industries. Although the term was coined as recently as 1990, clustering of businesses in the same geographical locality has taken place for centuries, driving productivity, innovation and expertise.

A comparatively new phenomenon is the co-location of institutions whose goal is to protect and manage biodiversity worldwide. Whereas business clusters are built on inter-firm competition resulting in enhanced economic growth, conservation clusters are built on inter-organisation collaboration resulting in innovative solutions to a global threat.

Collaboration between organisations linked by a common cause has the potential to unleash synergies and spur innovation that can positively impact the world

Now, a study by Vena Kapoor, a student on the MPhil in Conservation Leadership Programme in the Department of Geography, has explored how conservation clusters function optimally, highlighting best practices and lessons learnt for current and future conservation clusters.

“Probably the most important aspect for success is for a cluster to be based on a social network that initiates and facilitates a trusted collaboration,” she said. “Those clusters that began with an injection of funds but no underlying social network have been less successful.”

Kapoor identified 17 conservation clusters currently in existence globally. Clustering, as she explained, brings advantages: “Like their business counterparts, conservation clusters benefit from the physical proximity of similar organisations in terms of the potential for knowledge spill-over and a growing pool of skilled employees.”

Cambridge is home to the largest conservation cluster in the world. Comprising eight conservation organisations, a conservation network and departments of the University, the cluster has been co-ordinated as the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI) since 2007, and is also a Strategic Initiative of the University.

“In Cambridge’s case, the network took the form of the Cambridge Conservation Forum (CCF),” explained Dr Mike Rands, Executive Director of CCI. “Out of CCF bubbled a series of programmes that people wanted to do together. Then came the process of co-ordinating these collaborative programmes and raising the funds to deliver them.”

A representative and democratic governance mechanism and a neutral facilitator to guide the collaboration were also identified as key features of successful clusters. The study concludes that ideally these features should take the form of a ‘cluster initiative’ that improves the collaborative potential of the cluster and raises independent funds for it. Although rare in conservation, cluster initiatives have become a popular feature in business, often with government support.

“Collaboration between organisations linked by a common cause has the potential to unleash synergies and spur innovation that can positively impact the world,” added Rands. “But even the best initiatives can be derailed. At this early stage in the creation of conservation clusters, it’s important to be aware of the challenges as well as the rewards.”

For a cluster to be successful, the advantages of being part of the collaboration must continue to outweigh the disadvantages, as Kapoor explained: “In the beginning, members get something from each other – they all learn about each other’s practices, research agendas and tools. But tension can develop when a member perceives a growing competitive overlap with another member, a feeling of dominance by a single or few members, or a lessening of their branding or niche position.”

“This is where a neutral facilitator can continually bring value,” said Dr Stelios Zyglidopoulos, from the Cambridge Judge Business School, who co-supervised the study with Dr Rands. “The purpose is to bring oil and water together – to forge links between different organisations. It’s through bringing together different kinds of people and organisations that innovation happens.”

Dr Rands agrees: “If there is a lesson that I’ve learned it’s to keep fostering the mixing of researchers and practitioners across disciplines. Only then can we demonstrate that together the members are able to do things that they could never have done on their own, and yet still progress their own individual organisation’s mandate and interests. This study makes a strong case for the global conservation community to harness the concept of clusters to deliver stronger and better conservation solutions for the world’s biodiversity and the natural capital it provides.”