Economies built on traditional industries are facing up to the realities of the global economic climate, which means devising creative investment strategies designed to safeguard jobs and boost growth. It is an approach that is taking off in the Belgian region of Wallonia, where ‘thinking outside the box’ is more than just management speak.

Historically reliant on industries such as coal and steel, Wallonia has faced an uphill task to redefine itself since the 1960s. “Back then, the reaction of the public authorities was really defensive, with a focus on what could be preserved rather than what opportunities could be realised,” says Henri Monceau, chief of staff for innovation and new technologies in the cabinet of the minister for the economy in Wallonia. “But since the 1990s, we’ve had a series of proactive public policies aimed at improving our competitiveness and developing links between a network of players.”

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Inciting innovation

Its most recent scheme – Creative Wallonia – has already pushed a few boundaries since its launch in 2010. Led by Jean-Claude Marcourt, vice-president of the government and minister for the economy, small and medium-sized enterprises, foreign trade and new technologies, its aim is to drive innovation, creativity and investment in the region through public-private partnerships (PPPs).

“The goal is to make innovation the byword for the reindustrialisation of Wallonia and ensure it is based on creativity,” Mr Monceau tells fDi. “The more creative Wallonia is, the more innovative our industries will be. But we don’t want to target industry alone, we want to target our entire society, so there’s an educational component to our approach. We think creativity is the key to establishing a very innovative economy.”

Part of the plan focuses on education and encouraging universities, high schools and local partners to develop creative hot spots. ID Campus, which was born out of the University of Liege, financed by the government and sponsored by BNP Paribas Fortis bank, is the main example of a creative platform that gathers several partners from various sectors. “ID Campus develops real projects from enterprises, institutions or other organisations such as non-profit,” says David Valentiny, ID Campus executive manager. “We’re encouraging new practices, new thinking and new development models. At ID Campus, groups of students collaborate in a multidisciplinary way on creative project management and training.”

Mr Valentiny believes ID Campus’s value is in its contribution both to youth training and the generation of society and company-wide innovations. “Furthermore, because links are being made with other spots in Strasbourg, Montreal, Barcelona and Helsinki, it becomes part of an international network of creativity and innovation, ensuring that creativity isn’t siloed, but instead feeds on a global scale.”

Go digital

The importance of digital technology to Wallonia’s plans is also evident. “You can’t take innovation out of the digital world,” says Mr Monceau. "We have established the main steps we need to take to transform Wallonia into a fully digital region by 2020 to 2025 with the help of key players such as Microsoft, Google and Cisco."

Creative Wallonia has been racking up successes over the past two years and has already attracted significant funding for several projects. Earlier this year, Mr Marcourt announced plans to commit almost €30m for two new schemes that aim to boost the global competitiveness of firms in the region by improving their marketing and organisation.

Another move that has sent a positive signal to international investors is this year’s launch of the China-Belgium Technology Centre at the Louvain-la-Neuve Science Park following several years of collaboration between China’s Wuhan East Lake High-Tech Innovation Center (WHIBI) and Louvain-la-Neuve. According to Mr Marcourt , this incubator initiative could generate nearly 1000 jobs. The centre, which received a €100m fund injection from its Chinese partner, hosts Chinese technology companies that want to explore and develop the European market, and Belgian companies that want to prepare themselves for specific markets in China. Mr Marcourt says it will also be the hub for a Wallonia-China technology transfer platform as part of the Creative Wallonia plan. 

On the local front, the launch of Biopak Incubator 2 at Charleroi Aéropôle Science Park has highlighted Wallonia’s domestic ambitions. The 4800-square-metre building, which was constructed by Igretec with financial support from Wallonia Region, is intended as a springboard for life sciences and engineering projects. Offices, laboratories and a ‘smart work’ centre have been designed to accommodate 15 companies. According to Catherine Blondiau, acting managing director of the incubator, it aims to achieve 80% occupancy by the end of 2013.

Pursuit of PPPs

PPPs are an important feature of Wallonia’s plans. “We’re establishing PPPs with big companies to create mini funds to help develop start-ups in different sectors,” says Mr Monceau. “For example, Google has built a data centre in the Mons area and is developing relationships with Walloon start-ups. There’s also the Microsoft Innovation Centre, a PPP between the region and the computing giant, which is again based in Mons and active with start-ups. In addition, we’ve set up the Euro Green IT Innovation Centre – a partnership between the region, Cisco, Deloitte and IBM – which is dedicated to green IT issues."

Mr Monceau believes this approach is win-win for everyone. “Compared with big firms, small companies are often very agile when it comes to developing ideas. We’ve examined setting up specific PPPs between our regional investment arm, Société Régionale d'Investissement de Wallonie [Regional Investment Company of Wallonia], and big companies in order to create small funds to support areas of importance to these larger firms. We’ve established the first one with [telecoms company] Belgacom. The idea is to support between two to four start-up and spin-off projects every year. Ultimately, the main company has the option to develop the project. We aim to recruit up to 10 to 15 companies by the end of 2014.”

The regional government has also invested in a co-working initiative, which will create independent work spaces by the end of 2012. Another initiative that it has invested in is the Boost Up scheme – a series of projects designed to encourage innovation in the creative industries.

By Mr Monceau’s own admission, it is still early days for Wallonia’s plan to boost its economic prospects. But he says: “We’re already seeing lots of interest from investors, business angels and people who have set up their own companies who want to get involved in helping new entrepreneurs to develop new ideas. And we are already seeing a change in the region’s business mentality.”

The cost of this report was underwritten by the Wallonia Export and Investment Agency.