“Startups are well positioned to come up with solutions to the challenges cities face”, explains Bart De Wever, whose city was given international recognition for its policy towards start-up companies. The weekend ahead will see the Mayor of Antwerp pass on the baton at the Startup Nations Summit in the Irish town of Cork. 

Exactly one year ago, Antwerp was singled out for praise by the Global Entrepreneurship Network (GEN) for its policy aimed at encouraging entrepreneurs and start-ups with a series of notable measures. The GEN is an international organisation with headquarters in Washington, which is looking to drive entrepreneurship, growth and innovation by bringing together businesses and various levels of government.

Last year, Bart De Wever collected the GEN ‘Local Policy Leadership Award’ at the prestigious ‘Startup Nations Awards’ in the Mexican city of Monterrey. This coming weekend, the NVA chief is set to pass on the baton to his successor.

“Getting international recognition for your policy is obviously quite an honour”, De Wever smiles during an interview with Startups.be. “Our city has opted to focus on digital innovation and the results are something to be proud of. We were delighted to receive the Local Policy Award.”

Did the award set things in motion? Has the policy been adapted since?

Bart De Wever: “The award bolsters our credibility, which means businesses are more readily inclined to sit up and take notice of what we have to say.”

“The City of Antwerp’s policy is underpinned by a clear vision. We are looking to develop a digital ecosystem in which the private sector, educational institutions and the government work closely together. That vision has remained unchanged, but the tools and the targets are constantly changing, somewhat akin to the way the start-up world is constantly changing.”

“We too are trying to move forward as quickly as possible. For instance, by setting the right example and digitising the services we deliver. And by facilitating the start-up sector in different ways.”

What exactly are the projects you have launched for startups? 

De Wever: “Our start-up policy rests on four cornerstones. First, we are focusing on students. In order to foster their entrepreneurial spirit, we have put in place the ‘student-entrepreneur’ status, for instance.”

“Moreover, we are focusing on incubation and networking. Things for which we are chiefly looking at private partners. We bring the various stakeholders around the table and make sure they find common ground. The city is also involved in the ‘BlueHealth Antwerp’ incubator, which guides e-health start-ups in a joint effort with a series of partners from the private sector, the world of academia and the University Hospital.”

“Other than that, we are focusing on virtual incubation. A cardinal element in this respect is the development of the European Living Lab for the Smart City technology devised by Imec. The ambition is to become the biggest Internet of Things testing ground in Europe. Antwerp not only wants to be a city of things, we want to be the European Capital of Things.”

“The final cornerstone is growth and sales and marketing. For start-ups that want to play in a higher league, we created StartupVillage. In this building, we give young businesses who got off to a successful start the opportunity to continue to work at their product at concessionary rates, right alongside the incubators of Imec and Cronos.”

“Over the years ahead, we will continue to build and expand this ‘four-stage rocket’. The Living Lab is set to occupy an increasingly prominent role in this regard. And we will also need to create more places such as StartupVillage. The current building is already bursting at the seams.”

“We are also looking to make headway in the area of internationalisation. For instance, on our mission to Shanghai and Seoul in December, we will be giving a lot of prominence to our digital ecosystem. Next year, we will be doing likewise on a new mission to Israel. A mission which we will be moulding into shape in association with Startups.be.”

One of the reasons why Antwerp was awarded the prize was courtesy of the ‘buy from start-ups’ programme, which enables start-up companies that do not have official products or services to sign up to calls for tenders. The city has already purchased various services from start-ups. How is this going?

De Wever: “Our experiences are positive. Unlike the large IT companies, startups - and SMEs with a startup mindset - are more creative in arriving at solutions. They usher in innovation with the authorities, adopt a more agile approach with faster delivery times plus they are also more cost-efficient in the way they operate.”

“A point in case being the temporary ‘no parking signs’ for roadworks and removals that are ruffling a lot of feathers not just in Antwerp but in quite a few other towns and cities. In the old days, these road signs would be purloined on a massive scale for private use, making it nearly impossible to check which signs had been put up with permission from the local authorities.”

“One young startup is now enabling us to turn this around. Using GPS, digital signs will accurately mark the locations where vehicles are not allowed to park, making things easy to check with a smartphone app.”

“The entire procedure is being digitised and will be easy to access, enabling every Antwerp resident to find out whether or not any given sign was placed legally. User-friendly, digital and accessible to all: those features are key for the city administrations of the future.”

Have you had any negative experiences purchasing from start-ups? What are the focus areas? 

De Wever: “Working with start-ups demands a more flexible approach compared to working with conventional IT suppliers. Small young businesses often have a skeleton administrative back office, which means the traditional procurement procedures are simply too much of a burden for them. So providing adequate support is crucial. In addition, in a lot of cases, start-ups only supply part of a broader-based solution, which means the city’s directorship role remains essential.”

“Globally, we are unable to compete with mega-hubs like Singapore, London and New York. Nor do we aspire to compete with them. What Antwerp is doing is cementing its position on the map as an ideal testing ground and as a launch pad for businesses to grow at an international level.”

Antwerp is greatly focusing on digital infrastructure, rather than on an incubator more or less. Is this the city operating as a conductor? 

De Wever: “A conductor leads and directs the orchestra, which is exactly what we are deliberately avoiding. I see the role of a city council in this metaphor as the party in charge of the concert hall. We are the connecting factor that makes quality infrastructure available to young talent, there is no need for us to get involved with the things the private sector is already doing an excellent job of. As the city executive, we are keen to place emphasis on those areas that are closely associated with the public sector. Which explains our involvement with BlueHealth Antwerp.”

“Before anything else, our role is that of a matchmaker. We gather various parties around the table and make sure they click. If that click is there, we move on to support the initiatives that are born, and provide a leg-up in the area of infrastructure and in facilitating rules, as and where needed.”

“Start-ups only survive if their products are being bought. Which is exactly what the city is doing: buying from start-ups. Digipolis has created a gathering ground to this end, a marketplace where start-ups are offered challenges and assignments.”

“Away from its IT infrastructure too, the city is increasingly buying from start-ups. Which is rewarding in more ways than one. Urban problems are met with creative and innovative solutions, start-ups are seen to garner experience and have a solid reference customer to add to their list. If they move on to the next stage, the city is among those to reap the fruits of their success. A win-win situation for all involved.”

Antwerp Startup Fair (May 2016)

Why is it that Antwerp has chosen to put in place a start-up policy? Were you looking at Ghent with envious eyes?

De Wever: “To be fair: Antwerp had some catching up to do with cities like Ghent. Which warranted a catch-up drive, as the new economy is securing tomorrow’s welfare. However, I should add that our disadvantage did enable us to learn from the success as well as the mistakes of others.”

“I would like to underscore that the start-up dynamic seen in Antwerp was set in motion by the private sector. We were not very keen on the idea of moulding this dynamic into a policy framework, unlike a lot of other cities. But we did make it our priority to facilitate this dynamic. ‘Digital’ is also the guiding principle that permeates our policy. It is the best choice a 21st century city could hope to make.”

Do you take an interest in technology and start-ups yourself?

De Wever: “As a historian, I am more knowledgeable about the past than I am about the future. I am afraid I’m likely to remain a digital illiterate, however much my smartphone is constantly within reach. And when we travel, we do not leave until after I have given the children full assurances that they will have Wi-Fi at all times, wherever we go. The digital revolution has turned all our lives upside down. The possibilities seem endless.”

“On a visit to Israel last summer, I heard Saul Singer talk about the opportunities in digital healthcare. Implanted microchips that monitor our physical state of health and detect some diseases early. It may sound like all this is still a long way off, but this is what we are hurtling towards at breakneck speed.”

“The question is no longer what is technologically feasible, but how do we translate this into the social and ethical code of our community. Politicians have a role to play in this debate. The years ahead look set to be hugely fascinating in this respect.”

Obviously, Antwerp being considered as an interesting startup city at international level is wonderful, but to an extent, the same also applies to Ghent, and other cities as well. Would it not be a better idea to join forces as a region, to further solidify your position? The Dutch Start-up Delta goes all the way from Amsterdam down to Eindhoven. In our country, every city is working to build an ecosystem of its own. Is that the smart thing to do, from a macroeconomic angle? 

De Wever: “There will always be a degree of competition between cities and that is a healthy thing. However, we are not just moving towards a Smart City, but also towards a Smart Flanders, where every city is bringing certain specialities to the table. I am confident the start-up landscape in Flanders will evolve the smart way.”

“Next month, I will be heading up a mission with representatives from a considerable number of businesses to Seoul and Shanghai, in order to put Antwerp on the map on an even firmer footing. I consider that to be a very worthwhile effort, because, whichever you look at it, Antwerp is certain to remain Flanders’ economic engine.”

“In Antwerp, startups can also establish direct links with multinationals, which are all actively scouting for innovative solutions. With Imec’s Living Lab - as I was just saying - our city is also set to specialise in the Internet of Things. Applications that were engineered here, will roll out across Flanders as a whole and hopefully far beyond.

Are there any cities that are frontrunners in the area of technology, which serve as an example to Antwerp? 

De Wever: “Globally, we are unable to compete with mega-hubs like Singapore, London and New York. Nor do we aspire to compete with them. What Antwerp is doing is cementing its position on the map as an ideal testing ground and as a launch pad for businesses to grow at an international level.”

“Operating out of Antwerp, start-ups get to connect to the world! To this end, we have strengthened our partnership with Haifa, and we are also working with the private B-DNA consortium in Singapore.”

“Both Haifa, Tel Aviv and Singapore are miles ahead in the next economy which is highly driven by digital innovation. StartupVillage is open to foreign start-ups, enabling them to tap into new markets. Antwerp startups, in turn, are able to garner experience in cities like Singapore.”

“Closer to home, we are focusing on working with innovation hubs that rely on a strong industrial base. I am thinking of Eindhoven (which has Philips Healthcare to name just one), Rotterdam in The Netherlands, and Stuttgart and Munich in Germany. We especially need to look for locations where businesses are creating genuine value. To innovative knowledge regions such as Baden-Württemberg or Bavaria.”

What is the message you will be putting out at the Startup Nations Summit? 

De Wever: I will be telling people that it is not for governments to dictate the market. It is not the government’s job to assume tight controls; the market is regulated by private initiative. Where governments can make the difference, however, is in facilitating opportunities for growth for start-ups, in amongst other things by radically going for digital innovation.”

“Beta cities such as Antwerp are the ideal testing ground for new products. To cement this role, we need to lend our full support to developing and expanding digital infrastructure. In Antwerp, we are doing so through the City of Things project, whereby we are rolling out the Internet of Things in our city”.

“Policy-makers also need to resort to the kind of out-of-the-box thinking displayed by digital start-ups. These small businesses are well positioned to come up with solutions to the challenges faced by city authorities. Investing in these small businesses, along with educational institutions, also means providing opportunities for growth. This only acts to advance prosperity and consequently benefits the welfare of all residents.”

“In conclusion, I would also say that higher authorities are often stuck in strictly regulatory thinking, something which cities have long left behind. As authorities, we need to adopt a different way of thinking and flexibilise the statutory framework.”