ReLocate spoke with professor Greg Clark, urbanist and Senior Fellow at the Urban Land Institute Europe, to find out more. He is a widely published author on city development and investment issues and advises a wide array of international organisations. In May 2016 he presented a new report analysing the competitiveness of Brussels and Antwerp. Where most analyses of a city’s competitiveness rely on economic performance, The Urban Land Institute report looks at a much wider range of issues. Ranging from liveability to geopolitical risk and sustainability, these are the things that influence a city’s attractiveness to residents and companies alike.
Brussels and Antwerp are very different in nature: how did you approach the comparison?
“We put together two benchmarking groups, ran workshops, visited the cities and conducted a ton of interviews before running this comparative analysis in which we measured Brussels and Antwerp against groups of peer cities to arrive at an assessment of their competitiveness,” explains Greg Clark. “We didn’t just look at economic performance, but at other issues that impact a city’s attractiveness to residents too. Matters such as liveability, governance, geopolitical risk and sustainability are just as important in urban life. Brussels was tested against well established capitals such as London and Paris, cities that provide tough competition. Antwerp on the other hand was held up against peer cities that are reinventing themselves – some of them port cities – like Hamburg and Amsterdam, and other (former) industry greats such as Manchester and Liverpool.”
Antwerp has a huge opportunity to build a central role for itself as part of a regional system of cities.
What are their main selling points?
“Both cities have very good fundamentals, and their own, unique attractions. Antwerp is compelling for its extraordinary DNA. It has always been one of the world’s greatest trading cities and has invented many ideas about the connection between trade, innovation and discovery. Antwerp knows how to build a city around a port. Located within a north-western European economy of roughly 100 million people with a huge GDP, it’s well connected with Belgian, Dutch, Northern French and German cities on all sides. Antwerp has a huge opportunity to build a central role for itself as part of a regional system of cities.”
“The Antwerp port is embracing innovation in terms of how goods are managed, how energy is used and what technology is applied. They’re building an innovative port and energy complex, with a big focus on the circular economy, which is important and fascinating. Of course, the city of Antwerp is synonymous with the craft and design of high-quality goods. From the diamond industry to its fashion sector, Antwerpians know how to make items of high value work in the market place. This mercantilist attitude means it is truly open for business.”
“Boasting a young and vibrant population that is committed to taking the city forward, Antwerp is further boosted by a government with big ambitions. From building a canopy over the ring road to creating more public spaces and developing the left bank, the city is redesigning its urban fabric to make a future-proof city. Smart citizen initiatives activate people to act as the eyes and ears of the city, giving feedback on the quality of bicycle lanes or roads and public facilities that might need maintenance. These distinctive edges of Antwerp amount to things that are quite exciting considering its small size. Thinking about the business opportunities that arise from disruption runs deep within the Antwerp DNA.”
Brussels’ youthful population and great cosmopolitan mixity give rise to a highly scientific, entrepreneurial labour force that is willing to work in all sorts of industries.
“Brussels on the other hand is distinctive in a completely different way,” Greg continues. “It is a major capital city, and as home to the various European institutions and NATO it has an influential presence on the global stage, although it is yet to leverage it to its full potential. It’s interesting when you compare Brussels with cities like Washington DC or Singapore, which play an influential role by hosting global institutions, international summits and other gatherings that really work for the city.”
“It has a youthful population and great cosmopolitan mixity giving rise to a highly scientific, entrepreneurial labour force that is willing to work in all sorts of industries. The high calibre of educational institutes in Brussels is somewhat obscured by the presence of international institutions such as the EU and NATO, but the educational cluster has enormous potential thanks to leadership in fields such as IT, life sciences, or medicine. Most obviously it has enormous potential to be a global school of government, public policy and management.”
“When you look at productivity progress in Brussels a lot of it is to do with the dynamism of the labour market and its liquidity. People want to spend time in Brussels, partly because of its influence, but then find they want to stay and do other things too. It’s important to remember that government institutions feed and support a huge cluster of other kinds of decision making and communication activities. There are very big, positive spill-overs and multipliers that you can leverage into other industries. If you thought a government town can only ever be a government town, you’d be wrong.”
All attractive qualities indeed, surely there must be some drawbacks?
“They also both suffer from a number of challenges,” agrees Greg. “Part of this is that they are located in Belgium, and, great as Belgium may be, it is not a country that enjoys a clear institutional framework. Both Brussels and Antwerp struggle to build their identity and present themselves in a way that cities in less confusing countries do not. Brussels has far greater assets than say Vienna or Zurich, yet these cities have fewer difficulties presenting and promoting themselves on an international stage. Similarly, whilst Antwerp has greater or equivalent assets to Liverpool, Lyon, Genoa, and Turin, it has difficulty articulating what it is, where it is, and why.”
“They’re also rather late to the urbanisation agenda compared to other European cities. Citizens in Brussels and Antwerp are highly dependent on their cars and prefer the suburbs to the city centre. The Belgians tend to sub optimise the use of land and real estate, which translates into low levels of densification and very few mixed-use development projects. It also means there has been very little focus on transport and connectivity as a way of embracing and spurring on urbanism. The third thing that seems to be true for both of them – although each city has a slightly different version of this – is that they have had some difficulty creating the right geographical and institutional space through which to apply leadership to the city.”
“Brussels Capital Region struggles due to the way it is defined; geographically it’s too small for the – much larger – Brussels metropolitan area and then of course there is the fragmentation of having 19 separate municipalities, which rather effectively prevents an integrated governance model. You need a leadership platform for the whole area, otherwise you end up with different policies being pursued in different parts of the region, which is not particularly helpful. For Antwerp it was more of a question of leadership appetite in the past, although I think this is now being addressed. The current leadership has the appetite to succeed and a vision for moving the city forward. It’s just been slow getting there.”
“The public sector almost has a monopoly on leadership control in Belgium. Other sectors, such as business, cultural and higher education, have not played active civic leadership roles like they do in other cities of comparable sizes. There’s been too much waiting around for city government to put things right, rather than civic leadership working hand in hand with city governments to create forward momentum. I suppose you could say both cities have become somewhat institutionalised. This is now being addressed in Antwerp where civil and trade movements are working together with the city towards creating a more sustainable future for the city.”
Both cities need to build a strong brand and identity. Getting together with organisations that will back the city and help create a new global story will help put them on the map.
How can Brussels and Antwerp improve on their competitiveness?
“We focused on three main areas for our recommendations on addressing these weaknesses,” Greg tells us. “First, Brussels and Antwerp need to start embracing urbanisation. This means being proactive in extending and developing public transport as a way of reducing car dependence. By strengthening the urban mix, you create excitement and vibrancy. Creating exciting city centres and sub centres, together with a more active transport mix, helps attract and retain corporate investment and the dynamic workforce needed by these companies.”
“Secondly, the institutional frameworks have to be right. This creates room for city leadership that is continuously thinking about their city as somewhere people will want to live and work, rather than getting stuck in Belgian politics. Thinking about public and private partnerships on a city level is a big part of this, just look at how Antwerp is involving its citizens in the maintenance of its city.”
“This in turn leads into our third point: the promotion of Brussels and Antwerp. Both cities need to build a strong brand and identity. Getting together an alliance of organisations that will back the city and help create a new global story will help put them on the map. This is certainly happening in Antwerp, and I believe efforts are underfoot in Brussels now too.”
“Finally, both cities have really creative industries which are part of the impact of the cosmopolitan diversity of the city. You should be able to really use that cosmopolitan diversity as a driver of creative endeavour. The idea isthat diversity creates competitive advantage through interaction. To realise that, you’ve got to address the challenges of social exclusion and segregation. Brussels has two cosmopolitan populations: one is the elite that services the global institutions, the other is the population of migrants who have come from a poorer set of countries in search of a better life. Somehow, you’ve got to make those two kinds of populations work together.”
To read the full report, visit the Urban Land Institute website:
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.“