Aerospace has been a notable victim of the pandemic, with deliveries and orders of new aircrafts plummeting as international aviation came to a standstill amid Covid-19 travel restrictions.
Cities that have pegged their fortunes to the industry have felt the chill, but Jean-Claude Dardelet, deputy mayor of Toulouse — home of Airbus and a once-thriving aerospace cluster — believes the city will not succumb to “Detroit syndrome” as the cluster integrates horizontally with rail and automotive.
“Toulouse has shown its capacity for resilience throughout the pandemic. What makes the city competitive is its ability to respond to market expectations, whether that be on environmental issues, on digital and artificial intelligence or on life sciences,” he says in an interview with fDi.
Despite the fallout in the aviation sector in 2020, Mr Dardelet refutes the idea that Toulouse and its historic focus on aeronautics could fall into a similar trap to that of Detroit, the US city that faced economic hardship after the decline of its automotive industry.
“It was not the automotive crisis that made Detroit bankrupt. It was rather poor city administration,” he says, adding that “that’s why we’re betting on future mobility: trains of the future, cars of the future and drones of the future”.
In April, Singapore-based H3 Dynamics opened a hydrogen-air mobility lab in Toulouse. In March, French start-up Aura Aero unveiled a new assembly line at the city’s Francazal airport with a 19-seater electric aircraft scheduled for its first flight in 2024. Last year, French multinational Alstom won a contract worth €470m to design, build and maintain the new driverless metro line, Toulouse Aerospace Express.
And in June last year, the French government stepped in with a €15bn aid package to safeguard the aerospace industry, including €7bn allocated to Toulouse-headquartered Air France-KLM and €1.5bn to support research and development (R&D) and innovation in low-carbon aviation.
With the green revolution afoot, Mr Dardelet says that the city is witnessing a “paradigm shift” as the aeronautic industry diversifies and embraces broader crossover between aviation, rail and automotives.
The need to make green planes increases the need to make hydrogen batteries, he says, thereby creating products that can be used across the entire transport sector.
With a focus on R&D, to which an average of 3.7% of the city’s spending is allocated each year, and a student talent pool, Toulouse has emerged as a destination of choice for international investors in sectors from aerospace to pharmaceutical and biotechnology.
By the end of 2021, more than 30 companies will have set up shop in Toulouse, compared with just 15 in 2020, according to official estimates. This is also slightly up from pre-pandemic levels, with 29 companies investing in the city in both 2018 and 2019.
“From a few French start-ups to big German, American and Singaporean businesses, we have a great variety,” says Mr Dardelet, stressing that the “international side of Toulouse” is a big attraction, with English being widely spoken in the southern French city.
In 2015, Germany-based Evotec took over the R&D operations of French pharmaceutical company Sanofi in Toulouse. In April this year, it announced that it will add a biomanufacturing facility in the city, supported by the French government and the Occitanie region.
“Toulouse sees itself as the capital of reassuring and benevolent technology,” Mr Dardelet says, anticipating a future of greater integration between work, business and leisure.
“Is the ambition of a city to grow continuously? I don’t think so. Toulouse is the fourth biggest city in France; maybe we will become the third biggest, but this is not our objective. We want to welcome all those who want to live better with long-term jobs and to accompany the environmental mission that we have ahead of us.”
With roughly 18,000 new inhabitants annually, the city population is still growing; but for elected officials, Mr Dardelet warns, reshaping the city itself requires more effort than bolstering innovation.
“We can develop a new aeroplane or satellite in three years, but with a city we can only modify it by 2–3% every year,” he says, referring to the ability to replan and develop the city’s urban territory and add amenities, such as new public transport. “It is a longer process. So, we have to manage our priorities and our investments.”