Many cities claim that they are ‘smart’, but dig a little deeper and the reality is that all they offer is a handful of apps and free city-centre Wi-Fi provided by the local municipality. However, the Belgian region of Wallonia is intent on creating true smart cities – as well as a smart region – by developing an ecosystem that delivers on smart mobility, smart governance, smart buildings, smart health, smart education, and smart energy and environment, helping firms to achieve a good return on investment in their smart city solutions.

World Bank stats reveal that Belgium is among the top 10 most urbanised countries in the world. And, although it doesn’t have mega cities such as London and Paris, Wallonia does offer an environment in which new technologies can be rolled out and scaled up region-wide. 

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Wallonia boasts more than 2,500 organisations that are active in the digital sector alone. Of these, 20% are involved in the production of products and services based on digital innovative technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), IoT and distributed cloud.

Universities

The region has five world-renowned universities and 130 higher education institutions; 94 research centres dedicated to digital technology; a network of seven science parks; plus 10 clusters, two of which focus on digital business.

“Wallonia has a rich university system active in areas related to energy transition and AI,” says Olivier Devolder, energy director of N-Side, a firm that uses AI for energy optimisation. “N-SIDE was founded more than two decades ago as a spin-off from two renowned Walloon-based universities: the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL) and the University of Liège. This connection continues to feed our innovative mindset and helps us to source future talent.”

The Smart City Institute, based at the University of Liege, provides a focus for much of the region’s smart city activities. Its academic director, Prof Nathalie Crutzen, believes it is the world’s only research centre dedicated to smart cities that is located in a management-orientated faculty. 

“We don’t work in isolation. Even if our primary expertise is in management, we collaborate with engineers and those with a more technical background to manage the digital transition, create strategies and establish business and economic models for all stakeholders,” she explains.

Belgium is rated as a ‘Strong Innovator’ by the European Commission’s 2020 European Innovation Scoreboard (EIS), which assesses research and innovation performance. The EIS also reveals that Belgium’s SMEs rank in the top five when judged in terms of product, process and in-house innovation. And the nation’s companies rate among the top European performers based on integration of digital technologies in the EC’s 2020 Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) report.

Local and national authorities have helped drive Wallonia’s smart city and digital agenda. The Wallonia 2019-2020 regional plan detailed its strategic support for digital transformation, a key part of which is the Digital Wallonia programme, a collaboration that involves public and private partners.

“Digital Wallonia is a lynchpin of the region’s approach to being smart and sustainable,” says Isabelle Rawart, Smart Territory Advisor at digital agency Agence du Numérique. “Our approach is to use smart governance and to establish links between public and private organisations from all parts of the ecosystem to build a smart value chain. 

“Our focus is on developing a free market for smart city solutions where the technology is interoperable, open and replicable.”

She adds: “It’s important to take a regional approach to this so that the technology can be rolled out to enough people to create smart actions that transform lives.”

Encouraged by the European Feeder 2014-2020 development programme, Wallonia’s cities, universities and research labs are grabbing the headlines with a host of initiatives, such as the Namur Innovative City Lab; the Charleroi Creative District; the Mons Resized project; Tournai’s SmarTournai Smart Lab and Smart Living Lab projects; and the creation of a Smart City Province to accelerate digital projects in Walloon Brabant. 

Digital territory

In addition to the regional approach promoted by Digital Wallonia, insiders say that the creation of a digital territory, backed up by investment and commitments to ensure all business centres have fibre optic communications and 5G by 2024, are a big plus. Additionally, its leading computing capabilities that have attracted the likes of Google, IBM, LCL Wallonia and research centre Cenaero – the last being part of the European High-Performance Computing (EuroHPC) network – and its position in the top 20 of the 2020 Global Cybersecurity Index (GSI) are ensuring that Wallonia is a major player on Europe’s digital technology map.

Businesses in the region get plenty of tech development support from its network of physical universities and research groups, such as the University of Liege, as well as virtual cyber security and AI institutes, including Trusted AI Labs (TRAIL).

Start-ups

The quality and breadth of the region’s start-ups and accelerator programmes are impressive. “We have a good ecosystem of start-ups, including Jules Le Smart, which comprises start-ups and SMEs focused on smart cities,” says Francois Narbonneau, head of Smart Technologies at Multitel, a technological innovation centre for applied research and business development. 

One of the region’s start-up successes is Phoenix AI, a manufacturer of real-time image processing systems founded by Laurent Renard, thanks to R&D programmes and support provided by the EU and the University of Liege.

Finding the right skills locally has not been a problem for Mr Renard. “Belgian engineers are well known for their reliability,” he says. “When they promise, they deliver – and this reputation also helps with delivering our technology further afield in Europe.

Mr Renard explains that he first considered establishing his business in another country but in the end there was no contest as Wallonia’s R&D schemes were the most advanced. “This is the biggest value add,” he adds.

International collaboration

There are many opportunities for Wallonia’s public and private sectors to collaborate, including through the Smart City Congress, the Smart Inspiration Day and a range of training programmes. 

“We are a country that has always been open to the world,” says Stéphan Ernst, Senior Digital Industry Specialist at the region’s investment promotion agency, Wallonia Export-Investment Agency (AWEX). “Collaboration is something we are used to and this makes us attractive to partners and investors who are looking to leverage Wallonia’s smart cities technologies. This enables us to work together to reinforce the Walloon digital ecosystem while expanding our smart cities offering abroad. In Wallonia, we are working together to support organisations at every stage of their smart city journey, from concept to production, and from lab to factory to on-the-ground testing.”

This content is sponsored by Wallonia Export-Investment Agency (AWEX) and was written by fDi Intelligence.