2004. The Flemish government observes the need for a new paradigm in order to become the creative, innovative region they aspire to be. Until that time innovation was considered something exclusively technological, but around 2004 it started to become clear that new business models were needed and technology was no longer sufficient when handling ever more complex societal issues. A second insight, they couldn’t do it alone, led to the formation of a group of people with diverse, creative backgrounds.
“It started with a conference in Leuven appropriately called ‘Creative Districts Meet at Flanders’”, Pascal Cools, director of Flanders DC, recalls. “Representatives from nine different innovative regions worldwide were invited. The internet has proven to be a great tool to find interesting start-ups and policy surrounding them, how else can you know what’s happening in South-Africa and Israel? Of course there are several organisations, like the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), that look into those types of initiatives too.”
The attendees agreed that the initiative to exchange best practices and experiences with trans-regional and trans-disciplinary collaborations was worth fostering and the DC Network, the international branch of Flanders DC, was born. The Districts of Creativity Network currently unites thirteen regions spread across the globe from China, to Brazil, Finland, India, the USA as well as several European hubs. DC Network organises two annual activities: the Reverse Mission, a delegation of entrepreneurs, policy makers, educators, sector-representatives, pays a study visit to one of the member-regions, and the Creativity World Forum, a conference organised by one of the members focused on multidisciplinary collaboration, which takes place in one of the member regions. CWF returns to Flanders every three years..
Stimulating Creativity and Innovation
So why did a government decide to stimulate creativity and innovation in business, culture and education? Not only on a domestic level but across borders too? What are the benefits? And, what’s in it for Flanders? Pascal Cools explains why creativity is such a magical ingredient. “Think about services like Uber or Airbnb. Those are typical concepts from creative sectors, combined with technology and a nose for business. The key to their success: user centric design. This might sound very logical but 90% of companies don’t take the perspective of their customers. My cliché example would be Apple that made computer technology easy, beautiful and fun. They wouldn’t have succeeded with just engineers who think much more linearly.”
Cools also has something to say about the broader value of bringing creatives into your company than just enhancing the saleability of your product. “Competition is not only next door but across the globe. It’s impossible for a Flemish company to compete with a ‘Made in China’ aluminium window frame that’s 40% cheaper. Meaning if we want to assure jobs in the future we will have to make sure companies have a chance of surviving. And that means they need to innovate. The Fortune 500 includes businesses that were able to adapt to circumstances, that reinvented themselves, companies like, again, Apple, Microsoft, Google.”
Besides the commercial necessity there’s also a moral aspect to the need to innovate. “There are societal challenges that ask for a creative solution: climate changes, hunger, diversity”, says Cools. “We need to use the full potential, not just stick to the laboratory. I’m convinced that creatives, meaning people with artistic creativity as their raw material, can contribute to solutions because they perceive the world differently.”
Study into the Success of Thinking Outside the Box
Whether the ‘box’ be a department, a company or an industry, in an economy that can only grow by means of inspiration and creativity, staying within your own walls doesn’t suffice anymore. Flanders DC asked Vlerick Business School (an internationally oriented independent school) to look into what components make innovating across sectors a success. The study was finished in 2015 and then translated into a convenient ready-to-use online tool for managers. www.innovatiefsamenwerken.be
Though internationalisation is a large chunk of Flanders DC’s operations, they mainly operate on home ground. Daily business revolves around what Cools calls a ‘Disney slogan’: making entrepreneurial Flanders more creative and making creative Flanders more entrepreneurial. “After twelve years of focussing mostly on the first aspect, the government has asked us to concentrate on the latter,” Cools says. “(Would-be) entrepreneurs from twelve different creative industries like fashion, gaming, design, film and architecture can knock on our door for a broad range of topics such as advice on finance, business models, inspiration and network. We have a special focus on fashion, gaming and design because these three face the same challenges. Companies within these sectors are intrinsically internationally oriented. In fact they need to be ‘born global’, meaning they have to start operating on the international market right away because Flanders and Belgium alone are too limited for them to succeed. We help them with issues such as ‘I want to go to Hong-Kong, but how do I go about it? Do I go there, or de we go to special fairs for design, fashion and gaming?’”
The website cici.flandersdc.be features 32 projects that originated in the 2013 en 2014 Open Call for Innovation with Creative Industries (cici). These projects were selected as they have a possible impact on Belgian science, industry and/or society. One example is the wireless brain scanner developed by the Gent University Hospital that researches brain functions without the patient having to sit still in a hospital ward for days looking like Frankenstein’s hat maker. Patients, and especially kids, wouldn’t wear the helmet, which meant data-gathering was difficult. The cici-project united scientists, designers and a specialised CAD drawer who together realised a comfortable, nice-looking headband. The longer a child wears the band, the more points he or she collects, which is where the game comes in. Pascal Cools reckons this is where its success lies: “The question is not how can we make the machine wearable, the question is how do we make patients want to wear it.” Other examples are wooden interior design objects made from orchard waste, a mobile lab full of technical novelties to introduce children to technique, science and art and a food pairing app that helps you discover flavour combinations previously unheard of.
The Freedom to Feed Creativity
Flanders DC was instigated by the government, but isn’t a governmental organisation. Cools: “They always said they’re interested in results and an increase in revenues, but apart from some of the guidelines I mentioned earlier, they don’t really care how we get there. We have the luxury of great mutual trust. Of course we’re monitored to see if we spend their money efficiently, but the political interference is limited to that.”
Freedom is something Cools offers his people, not surprisingly a multi-disciplinary team, too. Creativity can flourish when there are as few as possible restrictions in how employers reach their targets. How they stay inspired? Cools: “Keeping our antennas activated at all times, keep our finger on the pulse. I think we’re one of very few companies that recognizes the need to be on Facebook and Twitter during working hours, this is where many new ideas are introduced.”
The world is continuously in motion and that’s a fact. Since 2004 many organisations and companies have discovered the benefits of cross fertilisation between disciplines, of injecting a dose of external creativity into their workflow. We might even say it’s becoming mainstream. Does that mean Flanders DC’s job is done? “It’s true we’re facing a new challenge,” acknowledges Pascal Cools. “We have to strive for redundancy, as this would mean we’ve completed our task successfully. It goes against commercial logic, but from a societal point of view it’s the only direction we can take. From a personal perspective it will obviously be a shame if our work ends, but I don’t think we’re finished yet. It’s going to take time before creatives are considered equal to and by the rest of the market.“
If we feel hard done by, we’re quick to share our displeasure with the world. Today’s media is abound with public relations disasters such as sackings being tweeted live through the company account and disgraced public figures who said one thing and did another altogether, effectively ending their careers.
We have a strong sense of justice and fairness and as a society, we crave a more meaningful life. This means that aligning our personal and professional values is becoming increasingly important to both our success and our happiness.
So how does this translate into the global mobility sector? As a people oriented business the majority of the relocation industry is quick to see the benefit of strong customer relations, but with a continued pressure on cost and speed it is easy to lose sight of the rest of our stakeholders’ interests.
Elisa French, partner and founder of Ceeyana, brought to life how easily and quickly we can integrate our personal philosophy into professional practice. With over 2 decades in Executive Coaching and Strategic Management behind her, Elisa is actively involved with the Relocation Professionals Coaching Program in cooperation with Oxford Brookes University and has transformed lives for a wide range of clients from small businesses to large corporations around the world.
The Conscious Capitalist
“Capitalism has served us well,” posits Elisa, “but is has come at a great cost. We now own more mobile phones than toothbrushes and our world is being disrupted at a greater speed than ever before. As consumers we have more choices, but they don’t necessarily make us happier. We don’t always feel heard or appreciated by our peers. Depression, burn-out, loneliness; they’re all signs of our time and very much on the rise.”
“Businesses need to acknowledge that it is their role to serve society, and as business people we need to see opportunity in this,” she continues. “We all prefer doing business with organisations that have a philosophy we can relate to, but it takes courage and commitment to change for good.”
“Typically organisations sense that they would like to take a more conscious approach to their day-to-day dealings, but it’s not easy turning such a big ship around. Compliance and governance are big hurdles to overcome, but we don’t rea-lise how many easy and small things already set us on track towards creating a more fulfilling life in a better world.” Elisa adds when we catch up after the conference.
Most of us will already have made a start towards positive change without even being aware of it. Whether you’re recycling your printer cartridges or just making sure that you don’t print out every single email, taking those first steps towards instilling a more conscious approach throughout your organisation isn’t as daunting as you might expect.
“For the vast majority of us money is not our driving force. Whether your company mission is to have fun along the way, to make a personal difference to the families you relocate, or to support a local charity, for most of us work involves wanting to improve life in one way or another.”
It’s finding this higher purpose that helps take your company to the next level Elisa believes. “Every organisation is different and what works for one, may not work for the other, so ask yourself, what does conscious capitalism mean to you? What are your principles, what are your values and what do you really want to stand for? Tell me why should I work with you and not somebody else. Ask yourself how you can integrate this common purpose into your day-to-day processes and relationships, but most importantly: turn up and actually do what you have set out to do.”
Money to be Made
Research supports the claim that defining and working towards this common higher purpose as a person, a team and as an organisation, is the key to creating a sustainable and successful business. A study by Edelman Marketing even suggests that companies committed to conscious capitalism outperform others by a factor of 10, proving there is money to be made in adopting a more conscious approach to business. The 2012 study also showed that when price and quality are equal, 71% of consumers would not just switch brands, but even help a brand promote their product or service if there was a good cause behind them.
“These companies are not settling for the cheapest suppliers or squeezing what they can out of prices, but instead work with selected suppliers to become loyal and mutually respected partners who invest in quality and innovation,” Elisa continues. “By investing in salaries, education, health and wellbeing, staff feel validated and want to come to work. Simply allowing people to speak up, paying them well, acknowledging them and giving fulfilling work builds a committed and loyal team who will carry your message out into the world.”
Being your Best
Your purpose is what anchors your organisation. It’s the magnet that serves to draw in all of your stakeholders and gets them to buy into your ‘story’. From clients and contractors to individual team members, you want everyone to be on board so that you can flourish by aligning with society’s need to lead better, more conscious lives.
It’s the millennials who are driving this desire for a more sustainable future. It can be hard for management – and long-standing team members – to see the need for change. They are often perfectly happy with how things have been running, but when you hire fresh young thinkers they bring new impetus to your company culture. So ask yourself: ‘are your processes bringing out the best in every stakeholder? Does your business allow you to be the best you can be?’ and then go from there.
“Think about it. Only too often do we devote all of our energy to getting the job done, to the detriment of living up to our higher purpose. We may choose to ignore the fact that a team member’s moods affect the entire office as we believe they get the job done. Or perhaps you’re keeping on a client that really you’d rather not have, simply because they pay the bills. If you’re accepting situations that undermine who you are and what you believe in for the sake of saving time and resources, it’s bound to come back and bite you. It has a massive impact your organisation’s culture, and takes away from where you are trying to head. You really need to critically assess what type of a culture you are tolerating: it’s the life force of your organisation. If your company is all about measuring quarterly profits and quick wins, then this is what you’ll get.”
If on the other hand you can not only define your values, but really embed them you start building values such as transparency, trust, integrity, compassion, generosity, autonomy and more into your company culture. Values that have a huge impact on your performance and that create great, energetic places to work. If, for example, you were to look at employee turnover as a key performance indicator, you’re starting to think like a conscious leader.
Creating Structure for Growth
“When you truly start walking the talk everybody gets to play a part in making this higher purpose become a reality and becomes accountable for their individual input and actions,” says Elisa. “When everyone is seen as equal you create a culture where feedback – even the most critical – is welcomed as an opportunity for learning. Defining your values sets boundaries and creates structure for growth as well as offering the opportunity to become who you really want to be.”
Most importantly you have to check in with your values on a regular basis. Whether it’s your operating systems, your business model or your company culture, make sure you don’t stray from your path or allow yourself to become distracted by the one who shouts the loudest.
Be the Change You Want to See
“When we do purposeful work we treat people with trust, care, and respect, and restore the ecosystems around us. We start recognising that all aspects of our lives and the world are interconnected. We go to sleep not feeling as lonely and depleted, but happier and more fulfilled. We feel engaged with the world around us and our work environment gives us the opportunity to lead the most meaningful lives we can. That being said, it’s up to us to step out of our comfort zone as individuals as well. We all want the world to be the best place it can be and we all have a part to play in this. Yes you want your company to be the force for good, but you have to live and breathe what you stand for as a person too,” Elisa concludes.
Daniel Poelman, Business Partner Expats, and Leen Goyvaerts, Business Partner Professions Libérales & Independants at KBC Brussels are keen to introduce me to Julie Fulon, Community Manager for the Brussels branch of Startit@KBC and owner of girleek.net. We meet at the Brussels incubator and co-working space to find out more.
Happy Accidents & Unexpected Success Stories
“The face of business has undergone a radical change over the last few years,” Daniel tells us. “There is a growing community of people who have bags of experience, or even none at all, and have a great idea that they seek to develop. Belgium hasn’t always been perceived as having a particularly friendly environment for businesses to develop and grow in, but thankfully that’s changing.”
It really was per chance that Startit saw the light of day. “The bank organises an annual competition for all employees worldwide. By getting our own people to pitch ideas we get to involve different backgrounds and cultures in improving our services and optimising internal processes. There’s never really a set theme and two architects who were working in the Antwerp tower at the time, saw an opportunity to fill the empty floors through an original and socially responsible concept: bringing together young people with bright ideas and entrepreneurs and organisations that would be able to help them get their projects off the ground,” explains Leen.
“They won the pitch and were given a budget by an internal sponsor who simply told them ‘we have the space, now you have the money, let’s make it happen’. Partnerships with the University of Antwerp, Flanders DC, iMinds and others mean that a great variety of expertises and networks have been brought together under one umbrella that start-ups can use to their advantage.”
It was an unexpected success that saw the first floor in the Antwerp tower filled almost immediately. Today there are Startit offices in six cities across Belgium, housing some 287 start-ups and 28 nationalities, and the numbers continue to grow. The Brussels incubator opened its doors last Oct-ober and their very first Pitch Day brought in 15 start-ups. Today there are nearly 40 start-ups working on their plans for global domination and the co-working space is positively humming with activity.
“You become part of a community. Even if you’re in completely different fields, you can still help each another save time and money.” – Julie Fulon, Startit@KBC
So how does it work? “Start-ups really are just that,” explains Leen. “They’re at the ideation stage. Budding entrepreneurs are offered the opportunity to come and pitch their idea to our jury and, if they are accepted, are given 12 to 18 months maximum to develop themselves and to learn to do business. This is their time to create a real business plan, to complete trial runs and ensure they have a viable business before heading out into the world and officially opening for trade.”
“One of the major benefits of being invited to work here is that you become part of a community,” adds Julie. “Even if you’re in completely different fields, you can still help each another. Only the other day at the lunch table one of the tech guys pointed out to two budding entrepreneurs that they would need to keep in mind credit card expiration dates for their online business. A simple statement, but one that will save them lots of time, stress and money in the future as their monthly membership programme grows.”
And of course there’s the mentorship programme too: “We ask our mentors to meet with their start-ups for at least two hours every two weeks,” Julie continues. “And although every start-up has their personal mentor, they can ask any of our mentors for help or introductions to potential clients, partners or departments. It’s easier for the start-up to reach the right people when they can get an introduction through one of our partners or mentors. It’s an invaluable benefit to have.”
“Mentors are usually decided on at Pitch Day. The jury often knows who will be right for which project but sometimes we ask the candidate who their ideal mentor would be. Of course many say ‘Bill Gates’,” laughs Leen, “but it does give you an idea of what type of support they are after. We’ll always look at each individual case and find a local mentor who is best matched with their needs. We also get a lot of interest from people who want to become mentors, but we remind them that it’s an unpaid job that requires a lot of time and effort, so only the truly dedicated should apply.”
It’s rare for start-ups, especially in the tech industry, to find people who understand what they are trying to accomplish. “We’re increasingly coming into contact with innovative organisations and start-ups through Startit and our Bolero Crowdfunding initiative, which made us realise that we didn’t really have the proper tools in place to service them,” says Leen. “It’s something we very much want to change and the reason why KBC and KBC Brussels decided to establish a national multidisciplinary team that can share its expertise and knowledge and help guide these young enterprises on their journey. We kick off in a few weeks when we’ll have some 40 people around Belgium whose job is specifically to offer a customised service.”
“We’re learning from the start-ups, just as they are learning from us. We’re changing our mentality and are bringing new entrepreneurial tools that will benefit all of our clients.” Daniel Poelman, KBC Brussels
“It’s a huge change for KBC too,” Daniel admits. “We’re learning from the start-ups, just as they are learning from us. We’re changing our mentality and are bringing new entrepreneurial tools that will benefit all of our clients.”
So what does the future hold? “The future just happens, our environment is becoming more favourable to business and it’s up to us to be a part of it. No one said ‘we want to become the leading start-up incubator in Belgium’ but it happened. The same goes for our industry itself. We’re investing in digital and ‘the internet of things’ but no one really knows where it will take us.”
“This entrepreneurial spirit is increasingly becoming part of the DNA of KBC. We’re seeing the benefits of networking and are integrating this into our own business model as well. We’re longstanding partners of BelCham for example, and given KBC’s Startit commitment to supporting young companies in Belgium, it only felt natural for us to become one of the Founding Partners of BelCham Atelier in 2013, the pioneering incubator in the heart of New York City (located in the same building as the KBC and Belcham offices). Under the leadership of Chris Burggraeve and Bieke Claes, respectively President and Managing Director, BelCham Atelier has already become the first port of call for Belgian scale-ups who want to explore their potential in the US.” Daniel is proud to conclude.