Conservation clusters: making the case

Clusters Credit: Strelitzia on flickr

Clusters Credit: Strelitzia on flickr

A new study reveals how the gathering together of conservation organisations in one location - a ’conservation cluster’ - can work best to reap global rewards.

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

—Dr Mike Rands

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.

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 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 Stelios Zyglidopoulos, from the Cambridge Judge Business School, who co-supervised the study with 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."

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."

CCI: collaboration and funding

CCI is a collaboration between the University of Cambridge and nine internationally renowned conservation organisations in the Cambridge area committed to the study and protection of global biodiversity. The founder members of CCI are:

The University of Cambridge: six Departments - Zoology, Geography, Plant Sciences, Land Economy, Judge Business School and the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership - founded the Cambridge Conservation Initiative along with the partner organisations listed below. Each of these departments has a growing programme of research and teaching in conservation, and work closely together on interdisciplinary programmes as part of CCI.

United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre : a branch of the United Nations that undertakes synthesis, analysis and dissemination of global biodiversity knowledge for conventions, countries, organisations and companies.

Fauna and Flora International : acts to conserve threatened species and ecosystems worldwide, delivering global and regional programmes of conservation and community projects.

BirdLife International : is a strategic global partnership of conservation organisations in over 100 countries, working to conserve birds, their habitats and global biodiversity, and to promote sustainability in the use of natural resources.

Traffic International : is a global wildlife trade monitoring network that works to ensure that trade in wild plants and animals is not a threat to the conservation of nature.

International Union for Conservation of Nature :  is the world’s largest professional global conservation network, and supports scientific research, manages field projects and unites conservationists to develop and implement policy, laws and best practice.

Tropical Biology Association : is dedicated to building the capacity and expertise of people and institutions to conserve and manage biodiversity in tropical regions.

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) : is the largest wildlife conservation organisation in Europe, and works to secure the conservation of biodiversity - especially wild birds and their habitats - through research, education, habitat management and advocacy.

British Trust for Ornithology : is an independent scientific research trust specialising in impartial evidence-based knowledge and advice about populations, movements and ecology of birds and other wildlife.

Cambridge Conservation Forum : is a network that links the diverse Cambridge-based community of conservation practitioners and researchers working at local, national and international levels.

To deliver its ambitious programme CCI works closely with like-minded funding partners. CCI is particularly grateful to Arcadia , who has provided core support for the leadership of CCI and grants for the CCI Collaborative Fund, the Miriam Rothschild Programme for Conservation Leadership, the Miriam Rothschild Travel Bursaries for the Student Conference in Conservation Science and the Miriam Rothschild PhD Studentships. CCI is also deeply grateful to the MAVA Fondation pour la Nature for their support to establishment a unique MPhil in Conservation Leadership.

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