By Boardroom Editors
The city of Antwerp, known for its port activities, petrochemical industries, and diamonds, might not immediately come to mind as a frontrunner in digital innovation. Yet the Flemish port city is exactly that. The city administration extends a hand to startups, research partners, and its industrial hinterland in projects that have elevated Antwerp to the status of one of Europe’s most promising smart cities. The result? Startups are booming, digital connectivity abounds, and the city is slowly but surely carving out a position for itself on the international stage.
Over the last several years as the Antwerp city administration developed a startup-friendly support system and an ambitious smart city vision, it became a facilitating partner in an adaptive ecosystem, involving corporations, research institutes, academia, business mentors, venture capitalists, and the Antwerp citizens. Add to that Antwerp’s legacy as a hub of creativity, with international acclaim in fashion, modern arts, design, and architecture and that further explains its appeal to innovative companies.
Antwerp is meanwhile aiming to further position itself as an international MICE destination and is coming off of a year that saw it play host to some of the world’s biggest tech events, including June’s Internet of Things Convention Europe at the Flanders Meeting & Convention Center Antwerp.
Here’s a look at some of the details.
The city acts as a facilitator for private projects, clearing administrative obstacles to create a solid footing for starting businesses. It has worked to scale up the number of business savvy yet tech-minded university graduates to give much-needed oxygen to its innovative workforce. In general, it encourages students with big ideas to become entrepreneurs by offering them a co-working hotspot to mix and mingle free of charge. The city provides financial support to Antwerp entrepreneurs wanting to sharpen their entrepreneurial skills and their network abroad and it is a partner in several Europe-funded projects on the exchange of best practices and the support of SMEs.
Antwerp also is host to an ever-expanding array of business incubators and accelerators, such as Start it @kbc,The CoFoundry, and The Birdhouse, accommodating and coaching new digital entrepreneurs. New co-working spaces have followed in their wake.
A centrepiece of the city’s policy on innovative entrepreneurship is StartupVillage, a growth space for promising local startups. It accommodates them for up to three years, providing breathing room to look for international opportunities. Several business incubators have set up shop at the same location. They bring in startups of their own, offering coaching, expertise from experienced business mentors, and networking opportunities. Together with the city’s hospital network and private partners such as Agfa HealthCare, UCB, and Microsoft, the city hosts Flanders’ only e-health incubator — BlueHealth Innovation Centre — in StartupVillage.
The city’s trademark tag “open for business” perhaps rings truest when it comes to Antwerp’s unique smart positioning on the European stage. The city invests significant resources in connectivity, a future-proof open data strategy, and digital interaction with its citizens. But rather than becoming just another smart city, Antwerp chose a different path. It created a partnership — called the Capital of Things — with the Port of Antwerp, the University of Antwerp, and imec, a world-renowned institute for nanotechnology and digital technologies. Together they’re transforming Antwerp and its port into what’s soon to be Europe’s largest real-life “internet of things” (IoT) living lab.
As such, imec is outfitting the city with data transmitters and sensors that gather data in areas such as traffic flow and air quality. The port experiments with drone technology and smart trucks and is opening up its logistics and shipping data on an open platform. The city’s IT department is building an open data management and visualisation platform centralising all data flows. All of these initiatives combined make Antwerp an attractive prospect for IoT companies that want to test a sensor or application. Antwerp invites companies to test their technologies in a specially designed “Smart Zone.”
In a more traditional fashion, Antwerp invests in smart digital services as solutions to any modern city’s challenges. Clogged at times by road work and rush hour, the city works with private suppliers of smart multimodal mobility solutions. It invests in smart bins and smart garbage trucks. And it has put durable technologies and renewables on the centre stage with infrastructure projects such as “Nieuw Zuid” — self-sustaining smart homes — and Blue Gate Antwerp, a brownfield redeveloped into a sustainable business park.
This article was excerpted from Boardroom, a Brussels-based magazine covering the work of globally based associations. It has been edited for use in Communique.