Mons, the capital of the Hainaut region of Wallonia in Belgium, has been named as the European Capital of Culture 2015, a further honour for the French-speaking southern region of Belgium, which is now undergoing a period of exuberant regeneration. While the 'Capital of Culture' title presents cities with the opportunity to market their cultural heritage and strengthen their cultural infrastructure, Mons chose to bid for the title by showcasing its ongoing economic restructuring, as summarised by its slogan 'Where technology meets culture'.

Major investments from Google, Microsoft, IBM and Hewlett Packard in the past few years are indicative of Mons’ flourishing IT industry, which is nowhere more apparent that at its central hub for technology, the Digital Innovation Valley. With an ongoing yearly investment of €1.25m in two innovation centres, the local government is making an important commitment to the sector: but not, it insists, to the detriment of the arts. Indeed, Mons aspires to become a truly modern European city that recognises the synergy between culture, technology and progress.


Technology meets culture

This aspiration manifests itself in the city's new train station. Designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, known for his work creating a similarly idiosyncratic station in Liège, Belgium, the station symbolises the relationship between culture and technology. It acts as a bridge connecting the historic old town, which is being restored, with the new commercial centre, made up of the Les Grands Prés shopping centre and the Digital Innovation Valley.

The station is set to be completed in 2014, along with a neighbouring conference centre designed by Daniel Liebskind, which will be only the second centre of its kind in the Walloon region. Apart from its aesthetic appeal, the Walloon government hopes that the centre and its planned services and shops will bring economic rewards. And the station, which currently serves about 20,000 people daily, will facilitate greater mobility in the city and increase revenue from conferences and tourism. 

The two projects sit within a portfolio of progress in the city, according to Marie Noble, executive manager of the Mons 2015 campaign, who says that the developments are geared towards what she calls “a new neighbourhood totally devoted to culture”.

She is quick to point out, however, that these projects also play a vital part in job creation for the local economy, and the sustainable development of the infrastructure of the city up to and after 2015.

Digital innovation

Pierre Leclercq, director of business development at Digital Innovation Valley, says that the developments and the revenue coming in are not only a boon for the local population, but are likely to attract outside technology companies keen to capitalise on the opportunity to build showcase solutions.

Central to Mons’ economic regeneration is the Digital Innovation Valley. Its origins, says Mr Leclercq, stem back to 2006, when Google became the valley's anchor tenant, investing €250m in setting up it first European data centre, creating 120 jobs in the process. The true making of the valley, however, has stemmed from the two major innovation centres that have opened: the Microsoft Innovation Centre and the Euro Green IT Innovation Centre.

Acting largely as incubators for companies and pilot projects, the centres are public private partnerships (PPPs). Their success stems from this funding model, according to Pascal Keiser, director of TechnocITé, an information communication technology and digital knowledge centre in the valley, and head of new technologies for the Mons 2015 campaign.

PPPs allow private investors (Microsoft, HP and Mobistar in the Microsoft Innovation Centre and IBM, Cisco and Deloitte in the Euro Green IT Innovation Centre) to actively develop small and medium-sized enterprises by providing necessary resources such as hardware, software and analytical tools, says Mr Keiser. It is a model he claims to be unique to Mons.

Incubation of entrepreneurs

The Euro Green IT Innovation Centre is dedicated to projects using IT to reduce carbon emissions, such as the setting up of ‘smart’ work centres located close to residential areas to minimise commuting time and the need for business travel. The Microsoft Innovation Centre is one of 100 similar Microsoft centres worldwide. However, Mr Keiser singles out this particular centre as special, as it is linked to the incubation of entrepreneurs located both in house and in the space surrounding it.

About half of [the companies set up in Mons recently] were created by young people from the region

Coming up to three years since its inception, Mr Leclercq says the Microsoft Innovation Centre has been a runaway success, blowing away its initial “reasonably aggressive goals”. Facilitating the growth of nearly 100 start-ups, creating more than 300 permanent jobs in the region and exceeding its initial projection of certifying 500 people in Microsoft technologies by 50%, the numbers are encouraging, yet Mr Leclercq admits they may seem in some estimation conservative. However, in a region with no previous “history of thinking those certifications were valuable”, it is an indication of not only mounting foreign interest, but also local appeal.

Of the new companies to have set up in Mons in the past few years, “about half of them were created by young people from the region”, says Mr Keiser. This he puts down to a student population, which at about 20,000 accounts for nearly a quarter of Mons’ population, that is no longer gravitating toward the nerve centres of Brussels and northern France. It suggests not only renewed faith in Mons, but also an invigorated economy.

Mr Leclercq agrees, saying that not only are the students who once left returning, but so are the businesses. This trend, he suggests, reflects a recognition that Belgium is not only one of the most connected countries in the world (in both transport and telecommunications), but also boasts a highly skilled, educated and productive workforce, and an innovative approach to investment and business.

The cost of this report was underwritten by AWEX. Reporting and editing were carried out independently by fDi Magazine.