Silicon Valley à la française: Paris-Saclay
by Krisztina Horváth
The case of Silicone Valley is probably the most iconic example of a so called innovation cluster, the notion that is commonly used to describe a group of densely linked organizations in the field of Research and Development that in some way benefit from the presence of each other. Due to many other similar success stories, the study of clusters became a center of interest and a fashionable approach in current economic policy.
This great current attention on clusters requires some more concrete explanation that goes beyond the apparent magic. Clearly, the synergy of clusters is a result of opposing forces. On the one hand, common sense suggests that if many organizations tend to gather together at the same location they will end up with some costs arising from crowding. However, as a series of real life examples show, these so called congestion costs are highly offset by the benefits of being together. Let’s have a closer look now at these agglomeration forces through the example of Europe’s currently most ambitious innovation clustering project, Paris-Saclay.
Following the worldwide trends of cluster supporting in economic policy, in 2008 French president Nicholas Sarkozy announced the project of Paris-Saclay Campus, the development of a scientific supercampus from the merger of several universities and research institutes in the southern suburb of the capital. The ambition was not less than creating a scientific hub that is capable of competing with the world’s leading research universities.
One of the main missions of the project is to serve the convergence process between different fields of science. This interdisciplinarity is planned to be achieved by the union of universities from more than 10 different research fields such as Engineering, Physics, Social and Health Sciences with an integrated research infrastructure. According to the words of Sarkozy, ParisSaclay will be a “mosaic of institutions, each highly prestigious, but badly coordinated among themselves and separated by artificial institutional barriers that are totally obsolete in an era of global scientific competition.”
The choice of location for the project is not a coincidence; Southern Paris has been a considerable concentration of R&D for a long time, with the presence of the prestigious engineering school, École Polytechnique or the great particle accelerator “Syncontron Soleil” for example.
In the beginning 23 organizations joined the ambitious project: state universities such as University Paris Sud 11, leading Grandes Écoles (HEC, École Polytechnique, Paris Tech, ENSTA, École Central Paris, etc.) and several national research organizations.
All of these leading French educational and research institutions committed themselves to move to Southern Paris and become a part of the new integrated campus and the joint super-university.
But what are the enormous benefits for which these prestigious institutions are willing to sacrifice a substantial part of their identity? Obviously, the most meaningful consideration in case of non-profit educational and research organizations is the access to a high concentration of financial sources.
First of all the French state invests billions of Euros in its vision of making Paris Saclay an internationally competitive R&D center as a coherent part of its „Competitiveness Clusters”, „Opération Campus” and „Investissements d’Avenir” programs, providing funding for new university buildings and expanding research capacity for example. Campus Saclay is also part of the giant transport development program called Grand Paris Project, as a result of which the integrated campus will be connected to the capital by the new suburban metro line, Grand Paris Express, making a smooth connection to the northern Charles de Gaulle Airport by 2020.
On the other hand, many private companies are already attracted by the high concentration of human capital and research facilities in the science park. Large companies, such as Microsoft, EDF, Danone and Thales have established or are planning to move their R&D centers to South Paris, providing additional financial sources to the universities and research institutes.
Numerous other benefits of moving to Saclay can be mentioned, such as the facilitation of common projects, the easier exchange of researchers and the improvement of labor market connections between universities and private firms for instance.
There is nothing surprising in these motivation forces; they are the same for the formation of many other science parks in any parts of the world, but this project is rather unique in one sense: the French state is currently trying to achieve the topmost level of clustering, not only attracting the most prominent actors of the French scientific life to the same location, but also incorporating them into a common institutional framework, the future Paris-Saclay University. Whether this fact enhances further the synergies of being together or rather intensifies the difficulties during the transition process due to the fear of loss of identity will be answered by 2025.