Brookings Reports Cites Upstate Automotive Industry as Economic Development Model

A new report from the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program cites the Upstate region and Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research as a model of cluster-based economic development.

The report, “Rethinking Cluster Initiatives” by Ryan Donahue, Brookings fellow Joseph Parilla, and Brookings nonresident senior fellow Brad McDearman, takes a fresh look at the concept of industry clusters—groups of firms that gain a competitive advantage through local proximity and interdependence—and offers practical guidance for metropolitan leaders considering investments in cluster initiatives, drawing on five in-depth case studies.

Anchored by BMW Manufacturing Co. in the city of Greer, the automotive case study explores the Upstate’s concentration of 223 automotive-related companies and 22,000 employees, noting these companies are bolstered byClemson University International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR), which offers North America’s first advanced degree in automotive engineering and actively partners with automotive companies to conduct shared research projects.

“CU-ICAR’s rise has coincided with a continued expansion of the automotive cluster in Upstate South Carolina,” Joseph Parilla, one of the report’s co-authors, said. “CU-ICAR is particularly notable for its use of industry-endowed professorships in key technologies related to the automotive industry and its rigorous, applied learning program to train students. For leaders in other regions and states, CU-ICAR offers an example of how a major research university, state government, and industry can co-invest in a shared asset that can differentiate a cluster from its competitors.”

The report also discusses collaborative partnerships with K-12 educational institutions, such as the All Girls Auto Know program in partnership with the Southern Automotive Women’s Forum and a partnership with Fisher Middle School, a science-, technology-, engineering-, art-, and math-focused (STEAM) school located at CU-ICAR’s Millennium Campus.

“South Carolina’s reputation for automotive excellence is the result of decades of hard work by talented, dedicated teams. With new strategic initiatives in advanced manufacturing, CU-ICAR will continue to help drive that success for years to come with our focus on strong public-private partnerships, cutting-edge research, and exemplary automotive engineering graduates,” said Nick Rigas, CU-ICAR Executive Director and associate vice president for Strategic Initiatives at Clemson University.

According to the report’s authors, regions grow based on their ability to provide environments where firms want to cluster and concentrate, and therefore cluster initiatives offer one justifiable foundation to lay long-term economic development strategies. They also acknowledge that implementing cluster initiatives is a challenge that requires significant institutional and financial commitment, alongside strong public-private partnerships.

Additional clusters explored in the report include: bioscience and life sciences (Central Indiana), water technology (Milwaukee, Wis.), agricultural technology (St. Louis), and unmanned aerial systems (Syracuse, N.Y.).