ANTWERP, Belgium – When it comes to innovations, the industrial city of Antwerp puts its money where its mouth is. Good ideas don’t stay at the theoretical stage for long, but are introduced as soon as practicable – directly onto the city’s streets.

A sculpture on the embankment of the River Scheldt, with wind turbines in the background. Innovations and energy-efficient technologies are never far from view in the Belgian city of Antwerp. Photo:

In the south of the port city, the local government has teamed up with imec, a prominent Flemish innovation hub, to conduct smart city technology experiments in a designated smart zone. Right now, projects being tested include a smart street crossing where intelligent cameras regulate how quickly the pedestrian light turns green (depending on traffic) and how long it stays green, depending on who is waiting to cross: a group of children or an elderly person, for example, will get longer to cross than a jogger. Moscow, where the car is king and pedestrians often have to wait for more than 2 full minutes before they can cross, only to be given a scanty 9 seconds to scamper across multi-lane highways, could certainly take a leaf out of Antwerp’s book, it appears.

“We are experimenting to see what works and what doesn’t, and when everything is working, we can roll it out in the rest of the city,” explains Guido Muelenaer, manager for strategy and innovation for the city of Antwerp, who was one of a large delegation that visited the Skolkovo innovation centre earlier this year.

Another project being tested is smart lighting that follows any movement on a basketball court, which has the double advantages of being both energy-efficient and increasing security for people passing by the court at night. The projects for testing are selected after consulting local residents to ensure that they are on board, said Muelenaer.

Guido Muelenaer, Antwerp's strategy and innovation manager. Photo:

Antwerp’s ambition is to become an international benchmark city for the Internet of Things (IoT), and the local government sees itself as a partner and matchmaker for all initiatives in this area, supporting research organisations and private companies, rather than implementing its own fixed plan.

“We have a strategy and vision of where we want to go, but how we do this could change: the market is developing so quickly that you don’t know what the new technology will be next year. So we have to connect with this market and research partners and follow new trends on the market,” says Muelenaer.

The government has also pledged to be a client of innovations, and to this end, launched the Buy From Startups programme, in which startups can submit simplified tender applications to provide services to the city administration.

“It works very well: we have more than 70 startups who in the last two years have got contracts from the IT daughter of the city,” says Muelenaer.

One step ahead

The efforts of Antwerp, a city of about half a million people in the country’s Dutch-speaking north, to position itself as Belgium’s innovations capital, were not prompted by traditional industries collapsing, as is often the case. The city has four economic engines: its port (the biggest in Europe after Rotterdam, and still growing), its chemical industry (Europe’s largest cluster and the second in the world after Houston), its diamond trading hub (84 percent of the world’s rough diamonds and 50 percent of cut diamonds are traded in Antwerp), and fashion and retail.

But the city does not intend to wait until it has to innovate to survive. Instead, it is looking ahead to predict changes and ensure that it remains competitive. After all, the 37 companies in Antwerp’s chemical cluster are represented by production facilities, not headquarters, points out Muelenaer. And while the city boasts of being the world’s diamond capital since 1447, in recent years, a lot of small diamond cutting has moved to India and other countries. Last month, the Belgian Scientific and Technical Research Centre for Diamonds (WTOCD) announced it had developed an automatic cutting machine that would be “a real breakthrough for the industry” and should “stop the decline of cutting activities in Antwerp, even reverse it.”

A man cycles past a mural in Antwerp's historic Diamond Quarter, the global diamond trading capital. Photo:

As well as trying to remain competitive, Antwerp’s smart city programme is also aimed at problem solving, says Muelenaer: in particular, mobility issues and security. Bike and car-sharing schemes – part of the government’s plan to reduce the number of cars in the city centre on a daily basis by 15,000 – are visibly popular across the city.

It’s not only the local government that is looking to the future. Antwerp is also home to one of two offices of the BlueHealth Innovation Center, an accelerator for health tech startups that is supported by Microsoft.

“Currently, Belgium spends roughly 12 percent of GDP on healthcare, and that’s OK compared to our neighbouring countries,” says Tom Braekeleirs, director of BlueHealth.

“However, if we continue with the current demographic evolution, the prognosis is that by 2050 it will be more than 33 percent of GDP spending. That means it’s not sustainable if we carry on doing it just like we are today.”

Tom Braekeleirs, director of BlueHealth Innovation Center. Photo:

There are two main reasons for this: an aging population and the fact that diseases that used to be fatal, such as HIV and cancer, are gradually turning into chronic diseases.

“That puts a lot of pressure on the care system, and we believe that entrepreneurship is what we need to solve that societal challenge,” says Braekeleirs.

In the last year, BlueHealth has coached 88 Belgian health tech startups to reach the next stage of their development, including FibriCheck, a prescription-only app that enables people to monitor their heart rhythm simply by placing a fingertip on the camera of their phone, and sends the results to their doctor; Bingli, a chatbot that asks preliminary questions when a person makes a doctor’s appointment and issues a preliminary diagnosis that the doctor then checks; and Oncomfort, which uses virtual reality to reduce patient anxiety during surgery and procedures.

“If you look at the big technology blocks popping up, it’s IoT, predictive analytics, cognitive services (basically AI) and mixed reality: those are the four big blocks that we see on the horizon coming forward in the next couple of years,” says Braekeleirs, whose organisation also has its own pre-seed fund, offering 50,000 euros to startups in exchange for 3 percent of the company.

Public-private partnerships

BlueHealth is a public-private partnership, and this is a format that, in its self-prescribed role as innovations partner, the city of Antwerp is keen to embrace. One PPP between Antwerp, the Flanders region and private partners is Blue Gate, a circular and eco-effective business park with extensive R&D and production areas being built on a former petroleum industry site on the bank of the River Scheldt that has been cleaned up from its previously heavily polluted state. Space at Blue Gate will only be available for companies working in the circular economy who meet sustainable standards, explains Muelenaer. Due to be completed by 2035, the phased development will also feature Blue_App, a research building for the University of Antwerp, as well as BlueChem, an incubator for sustainable chemical startups due to open in 2020 featuring fully equipped labs and aimed at fostering collaborative research projects with enterprises.

Next to Blue Gate is the New South energy-efficient housing complex, which uses heat generated by incinerating rubbish. The first residents have already moved into the complex, which looks not unlike the first residential districts of the Skolkovo innovation centre. The complex is designed to ensure socially diverse residents, with pricier flats along the river, and more accessibly priced properties further inland. A similar sustainable housing project in the north of the city, close to the port, will use heat produced by industry.

Another PPP currently under completion is The Beacon, a product development hub in the centre of the city focused on IoT: specifically in industry, logistics and smart city. An initiative by Antwerp’s Capital of Things partners – the city, port, university and imec – the Beacon is due to open in September, once refurbishment of the nine-story building that will house it is complete. The Beacon will be the operational headquarters of imec’s IoT Living Lab project to test and implement smart city solutions.

The New South energy-efficient housing development uses heat produced by incinerating rubbish. Photo:

Ideal testing lab

BlueHealth’s first office was set up six years ago in Genk, another industrial city in Flanders. Last year, when the city of Antwerp opened StartupVillage (not to be confused with the Skolkovo event of the same name), an innovations hub for startups in the city centre, the health tech accelerator opened a second office and co-working space there. Braekeleirs says the city has several advantages as an innovations hub.

“For me, Antwerp is a city of crossroads: geographically it’s smack in the middle going from the Netherlands to France, or from London to Berlin,” he says.

In addition, the city has an interesting health ecosystem, with university hospitals, private hospitals and public hospitals located on a “very condensed scale,” combined with a very diverse population, says Braekeleirs.

"The size of Antwerp is very suitable for experiments: it’s big, but not too big" - Guido Muelenaer.

“Antwerp is home to about 170 nationalities, and sometimes there are cultural differences in the way certain technologies are adopted,” he said, citing Oncomfort, which is currently researching whether there are cultural differences in the way the mind perceives a hypnotic state. The prevalence of certain kinds of diseases among specific ethnicities also makes diverse Antwerp a good testing ground to work in, he said.

“There’s only one city in the country that has such a diverse population,” he said.

Muelenaer agrees.

“The size of Antwerp is very suitable for experiments: it’s big, but not too big,” says Antwerp’s strategy and innovation manager.

“It has all the elements of a city: traffic problems, security problems, shopping and industry. Everything is present here, and the idea is to test it here and then use it in other cities too,” he said.

This article is part of a series about the cooperation between Antwerp and the Skolkovo innovation city.