Leuven MindGate

laying the foundations for Belgium’s first International House
Leuven MindGate

Mohamed Ridouani, alderman for SP.A in Leuven

Let’s make an equation containing three elements: city + international companies + (international) talent. The desired outcome: an attractive environment, wealth, social cohesion. Or, in other words, an attractive brand. You, dear reader, will surely be aware that a happy worker is a happy company is a happy city is a happy resident is a happy worker…. ReLocate has recently focused on a number of things that can contribute to a companies’ wellbeing – and their employees – today we’d like to focus on what cities can do. A survey among 1.264 international workers tells us: a lot.

Everything begins and ends with integration. If you or your partner don’t feel like you are part of the community, then it is likely your stay in Leuven will be a short one.

Thanks to Leuven University, Europe’s eldest, the city has long been an international hub for students, researchers and companies. Their presence has done the region good, but it doesn’t mean the people who want more for Leuven can sit back and rest on their laurels. That’s why, in 2016, Mohamed Ridouani (alderman for SP.A) initiated Leuven MindGate, a network of local institutions, government bodies and industry sectors joining forces to guarantee long-term sustainable development, innovation and welfare in the region. How? By creating optimal circumstances for businesses (e.g. attractive tax conditions), research & development, studying and living.

Research + White Paper
Everything starts with people. With the aforementioned survey Leuven MindGate wanted to “investigate what makes Leuven an attractive place to live and work and where there’s room for improvement. A special taskforce was created to come up with practical recommendations and to specify the right actions required to establish this high-level living and working climate within the region”. The results are bundled in a white paper titled ‘Towards An Outstanding Working and Living Environment: needs and practices for supporting international knowledge workers’.

To start with a general conclusion: success boils down to integration. Not surprisingly these are the paper’s three main focus points: integration of the worker in his or her job, the family or partner into the new environment, and both of them into the Leuven community. In spite of the abundance of help on a wide variety of subjects that is offered by relocators and other specialists, several gaps in the supply of information for newcomers kept surfacing. It is here that the city has decided to step up and take responsibility.

A selection of conclusions from the report:
• The knowledge workers were least happy with the help offered in the search for a daytime activity (e.g. a job) for the partner, a school or day-care for the children and cultural integration;
• The partner’s wellbeing often seems to be the determining factor for a longer or even permanent stay in the Leuven region. Fewer than half (42%) of international staff currently feel part of the local community, 45% of partners who want to work in Belgium experience difficulties;
• The City of Leuven plays a vital role in the integration of international knowledge workers, but their initiatives are scattered and not all accessible;
• [Most] people want the City of Leuven to inform them about administration and registration, activities and healthcare;
• The gap-analysis between the importance rated and the quality of the support shows that in the future the greatest improvement (high importance combined with current low quality) can be made with actions targeting partner job search, housing, relocation, schools and childcare and tax matters;
• 54% of respondents indicate that more information from the City of Leuven about cultural and social activities would be useful.”

Leuven, hidden pearl (policy)
Alderman Mohamed Ridouani makes it his personal matter to address these issues. From an interesting but rather unusual portfolio containing (among others) economy, education and real estate, he works on the internationalisation of Leuven. Again integration is key here. “I try to make it one of my assets, because a city with a high quality of living – liveable, tolerant, bustling – is an attractive city. I visited Shanghai during the course of our research for MindGate, and found they’re experiencing trouble attracting knowledge workers partly because of the smog.”

Like many innovations, Leuven MindGate and the dream of an International House originate in frustration. Ridouani: “Leuven has and offers a great deal of opportunities. Everyone knows it as university town, but it’s much less known that we’re also leading in research. Because of that we’re only reaching part of the international talent that might be interested in working here, which means less companies, and less European research funds.”

Ridouani wants the world to see Leuven for what it is: a pearl. In order to do this Leuven MindGate has set two main goals. One: putting the city on the map for health, hi-tech and creativity (Did you know Teno-fovir, one of the most frequently used medications to treat AIDS was developed there?). Two: Combining forces for a larger (social) coherence. “There’s research going on at IMEC (world renowned nano-electronics research centre), there’s research going on at the university hospital, combine those two and you get biotech. This in turn opens up a world of possibilities for start-ups, investments and so forth,” Ridouani enthusiastically explains.

“The university is good for six hundred years of scientific development and gaining knowledge,” Riduani continues, “twenty years of transforming that into products and solutions lead to companies like IMEC that brought wealth to our region. And I don’t just mean financially, with 156 nationalities in one city we can speak of cultural wealth as well. The next step is to make sure we attract and foster activity and business for more prosperity, more jobs, an even higher quality of life. We can only make that happen if people stay.”

Laying the Foundations
When asked about remarkable conclusions that came out of the Leuven MindGate research, Ridouani says: “I was surprised to learn that such a large percentage of respondents like to live here, but they don’t feel integrated. I think 80% of the respondents said they don’t know who their neighbours are. In fact a very important reason for people to leave Leuven is their partners’ lack of activities and integration. I was also surprised that the city’s offerings like cultural activities, schooling, child day care, etcetera are hardly known. It supports my conviction that social cohesion starts on a very local level.” That’s where the International House comes in. Besides investing in affordable workspace and housing, issues like schools for accompanying children are a necessary means to remove the barrier to come to Leuven. In Ridouani’s words: “integration into the local society is a top priority”.

Even though the idea of one location where everything the expat needs is concentrated under one roof was a product of his own imagination, Ridouani is humble enough to admit that he might not be the only one to have had this thought. Research took him to Denmark, to the International House in Copenhagen. The house accommodates public authorities, public services, private services and the University International Staff Mobility team. It offers support before, during and after relocation and integration. “We also visited the International House in Eindhoven. Each has it’s own specialties, but the basic offer is the same: an overview of online resources and forms to prepare the expat’s stay and help in his or her search for accommodation. Once they arrive they will be guided through their emigration process. The International House will be a home base where expats can find all possible information they need to integrate as quickly as possible: information on schools, (cultural) activities, volunteering, job markets. Besides practical and administrative help, we are planning to organise events and a festive International Day. What I think will be unique in the Leuven International House is the integration of the International Primary School that is currently situated in Heverlee.”

“We already have 17.000 international workers in Leuven. I want them to feel at home, to break the barrier between them and the Flemish community, something the people from Leuven would like as well.” Ridouani sounds inspired. “The International House should become the central place for all affairs international, but I hope it will also become a symbol or flagship for Leuven’s international aura and ambition.” By no means is Ridouani planning to replace the service providers that are currently operating in Leuven: instead he’d like to join forces. As far as integration goes Ridouani is thinking big. “Think of all the local applications that research could lead to: city planning, mobility, safety, air quality…”

It looks like 2017 is the year in which many a relocator, expat and employer’s dream finally comes true: Belgium’s first International House is well on its way to becoming a reality. We highly recommend reading the report. Find it here:
www.leuvenmindgate.be/en/news-press/hr-event

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