Visitors arriving at the ‘Railroad Cathedral’ – Antwerp’s Central Station, celebrated as an architectural masterpiece for its mix of awe-inspiring high ceilings and stained glass windows alongside modern infrastructure – receive an appropriately bold first impression of a city that successfully merges new and old.

Historically, Antwerp has been fundamental to the economy of Belgium’s Flanders region as a hub for international business and commerce – including the diamond trade, which has had a presence there for more than 450 years. The city’s clout continues today as the Antwerp region generates 19% of Belgian GDP, much of which is attributable to the port of Antwerp, which covers an area of 120 square kilometres.

Welcoming the world

Antwerp’s port was ranked as Europe’s best-connected in Unctad’s Liner Shipping Connectivity Index 2019, and is Europe’s second largest by container volume behind nearby Rotterdam in the Netherlands. The port’s connectivity, alongside Antwerp’s position on one of the main longitudinal road networks in Europe, has made the city crucial to global supply chains and logistics.

As home to over 170 nationalities and the second most populous city in Belgium with some 527,000 inhabitants, Antwerp appears to epitomise globalisation and open-mindedness. With an offering that combines the creative and technical, in both its renowned retail and fashion industry (see page 10) and the world’s second largest chemical cluster, the city has plenty to interest foreign investors.

From January to July 2019, the city attracted a record $3.62bn of inbound greenfield investment, according to greenfield investment monitor fDi Markets. A mega-investment of $3.4bn announced in January 2019 by UK-based private chemical giant Ineos made up the vast majority of this record total.

Chemical cluster

Ineos's plans to build a cracker and propane dehydrogenation unit – the first of its scale and kind to be built in western Europe for two decades – will expand upon the company’s existing five plants in Antwerp’s port. Such a commitment shows the strength of the city's chemical cluster, which has an annual chemical production capacity of 19 million tonnes, 1000 kilometres of pipelines and is home to global chemicals giants including BASF, DowDuPont and ExxonMobil.

“Coming to Antwerp means that you have access to multiple markets, talent and innovation,” says Wouter De Geest, CEO of BASF Antwerp, a subsidiary of the Germany-based chemical group BASF. “But most of all Antwerp is a living laboratory for supply chains, industry and a lot of areas [where] you can test new concepts that are warmly welcomed. Foreign investors will find a warm welcome from the Flemish government, Flanders Invest and Trade and the Chamber of Commerce,” he adds.

Another strength of Antwerp’s chemical cluster is its diversification “ranging from petrol and oil cracking to base chemicals, platform chemical molecules, speciality chemicals, pharma and plastics: all the sub-sectors are represented in Flanders”, says Leentje Croes, managing director of BlueChem, an incubator for sustainable chemistry.

Given the commitment to net zero emissions by 2050 made by Belgium and 21 other EU governments, Antwerp is taking effective measures to ensure the foundations of its economy, namely its port and chemical cluster, are geared towards a sustainable future (see page 7).

Collaborative collective

Collaboration among stakeholders in Antwerp has ramped up of late, as the city strives to promote its quadruple helix of co-operation between the government, academia, the private sector and Antwerp’s citizens and work towards improvements in terms of quality of life, innovation and sustainability. The merging of three universities in the city exemplifies the drive to combine and utilise Antwerp’s areas of strengths.

“There is not competitiveness between stakeholders; rather people want to work together,” says Bie De Graeve, director of executive education at Antwerp Management School.

The strengths of Antwerp, namely its city, port, chemical industry and culture of creativity, are recognised across the city and “form the base for the multidisciplinary [value] domains we are focusing on”, says Silvia Lenaerts, vice-rector at the University of Antwerp and representative at Blue_App, a sustainable chemistry pre-incubator.

Much of this collaboration is geared towards digital innovation, as the city implements smart city solutions to optimise the living environment and deal with some of the most pressing issues it faces (see page 8). This drive is also part of Antwerp’s mission to become a future European technology start-up hub, according to vice-mayor Claude Marinower (see page 6)

Mobility issues

Antwerp’s main problem is traffic congestion, with two sections of the ring road into the city from the port being ranked as the third and seventh most congested traffic hotspots in Europe, according to Inrix’s Europe’s Traffic Hotspots 2016 report, which estimated the economic cost of congestion to Antwerp would be £1.5bn ($1.85bn) by 2025. According to 2011 World Bank data, Belgium has the third most dense road network in the world.

Antwerp is tackling this issue by sinking €1.5bn into public road infrastructure, a long-term project to ease this congestion. Mobility within the city centre, conversely, has markedly improved since it became more easily navigable and introduced a much-praised cycle infrastructure with wide cycle lanes and a well-established hire scheme.

Such easy navigability is one of the reasons for Antwerp’s attractiveness as a retail destination (see page 10), while its compactness makes interactions with important decision-makers easy. As a relatively small global port city with a successful legacy in commerce and industry, Antwerp has always been open for business. With renewed willingness to promote areas such as sustainability and digital innovation alongside strong industry, the city hopes to reel in foreign investors across the board.