Leuven - the European Capital of Innovation through cameras and lenses of Serbian journalists

December 9, 2021

The Belgian city of Leuven is only 20 minutes away from the capital of Brussels, but it is also the capital in the field of European innovations. Why Leuven was declared the European Capital of Innovation – the topic was investigated by journalists from Serbia during their visit to this city from November 14 to 19, 2021, organised by the Pulse of Europe - Media Trips to EU project.

 The project has organised the thematic visit in cooperation with organisations that contributed to the prestigious title: Leuven MindGate and Leuven 2030. Twelve journalists from the dailies Danas and Blic, news agencies Beta and Tanjug, Serbian Radio and Television and N1 TV, New Economy magazine, Nedeljnik and the BizLife portal visited institutions, science parks and talked to the leading people of the city, the Catholic University of Leuven and entrepreneurs. Representatives of the innovation sector from Serbia also took part in the media visit: one representative each from the Innovation Fund and the Science and Technology Parks Belgrade, Čačak and Niš.

The official explanation of the European Commission said that Leuven was declared i-Capital (innovation Capital) because of its use of innovations to improve the lives of citizens. During all meetings in Leuven, the participants from Serbia had the opportunity to hear about the specific ecosystem which consists of city authorities, educational institutions and companies networked in cooperation and encouragement of entrepreneurship and innovation. It is this system that has enabled Leuven to be one of the world's leading regions in the fields of health, high technologies and creativity.

"Leuven is a city of knowledge and innovation, especially in the field of medicine. And that is perhaps one of the reasons why we are successfully coping with the pandemic, "said the Mayor, Mohamed Ridouani in a meeting with Serbian journalists. Not without pride, he presented the "identity card" of Leuven: the Catholic University is one of the oldest in Europe (founded in 1425), the most innovative in Europe, has the University Hospital which is second in the world with 9,000 employees, the city hosts about 60,000 students, it is very inclusive (it is home to as many as 171 nationalities) and - it constantly offers new jobs (114 for every 100 citizens). It invests in even greater inclusiveness, by organising free education for the underprivileged. Danas daily reports in details.

The Catholic University of Leuven is certainly the first key word: its University Department of Research and Development, according to manager Michael de Blauwe, is a completely independent business unit, which is the one in a kind business model in the world. The annual budget is an impressive half a billion EUR; professors and researchers are financially well supported, and cooperation with companies (spin off) is on the rise - according to data from 2020 there were 140. Medical researches are numerous, including the development of the most used HIV medicine worldwide. It is not surprising that MiDiagnostic Company is currently developing ultra-fast Covid-19 nanotechnology chip-based test that will give a result in just 15 minutes.

A Belgrader in Leuven: the application of artificial intelligence in medicine

One of the PhD students of KU Leuven is Marko Topalović from Belgrade, who has been living in Belgium for ten years, dealing with the application of artificial intelligence in the diagnosis of respiratory diseases. His business journey is evidenced by the fact that only two days before meeting with Serbian journalists, he paid a business visit to Dubai, where the application of software created by Marko should start soon, after it is already done in Belgium and Great Britain. Marko is now at the helm of Artiq worth more than EUR three million.

The participants had the opportunity to find out more about the Western Balkans Agenda on Innovation, Research, Education, Culture, Youth and Sport during an online meeting with  representatives of the European Commission. The Agenda envisages opening up opportunities for researchers, innovators and cultural workers from the Western Balkans to access new markets, as well as the assistance to be more competitive and build sustainable progress.

That it is a city of education and students in Leuven can be seen at every step: almost every second or third building holds the small plate "KU Leuven", the student campus is in the city center, and the university library and the University building in the downtown. According to De Blauwe, KU Leuven has about a million and a half square meters in the city.

The second symbol of Leuven is certainly the bicycle, which by far exceeds the cars on the streets of the city, so much so that the tourists could forget about the obligatory traffic lights. Everything is adapted to cyclists, even the circular lane where employees in office buildings descend to the city streets. About 40 percent of citizens use bicycles as their main means of transportation, Bizlife writes in its report from Leuven.

We encourage citizens to car pooling when they go to work - that's how they get a free parking space, says the Mayor. This brings us to the third key word in Leuven - activism, which has led NGOs and other participants to join the Leuven 2030 organisation, which aims to combat climate change. Founded in 2013, the non-profit organization has grown from 60 members to 600, including large business players such as InBev, the producer of "Stella Artois" famous beer. Leuven 2030 Director Cathrien Rycken says that the plan is to make Leuven climate-neutral by 2050, which, they estimate, will require EUR 300 million a year. Intensive work is being done to increase energy efficiency, and the city is already subsidizing the transition to solar panels (one for every 10 purchased is free).

Therefore, the next key word is synergy, which, like all other actors, is applied also by Leuven MindGate, an organisation that facilitates cooperation between companies, entrepreneurs, investors and talents. Project manager Kirsten Van der Stappen, one of only six employees, met with guests from Serbia in the old town hall, a cultural monument that was open only for the occasion. "We focused on three sectors in which we have world-famous research centers. These are health, high technology and creativity. In high technology, a large number of companies have research and development here. We are a small region, but the total regional budget for research and development is one EUR billion," Van der Stappen said, as reported by the Euractiv Serbia web portal.

Economic adviser in the city office Han Vloeberghs says that the citizens are involved in the development of the city: the city authorities invited them to give their proposals for projects and received as many as 2,000, and accepted 1,300. This is how citizens participate in some climate projects, too - by measuring the air temperature in their neighbourhoods.

Leuven currently has two large science parks - Arenberg and Haasrode, and a third one is planned. The journalists visited the Health House, situated in the Arenberg Park, which represents scientifically based innovative achievements in the field of medicine and public health (application of robotics, 3D printing, etc.). They also had the opportunity to hear about the project of Digital City Pole project – public poles whose goal is to enable wireless networking of the city's infrastructure. The pole, the prototype of which has already been installed in the Arenberg Science Park, looks relatively common, but, apart from LED lights, it contains numerous sensors: for measuring air quality, monitoring traffic or city public events, and also enables 5G network and electric car charging.

One of the participants in the project is Nokia, and the financial support comes from the Flemish government and the EU Agency for Entrepreneurship. And that is just the beginning of a larger project presented to Serbian journalists by one of the creators, the director of the inter-municipal organization Interleuven Patrick Willems: "By 2024, we plan to install 40 digital poles. We are also planning the transformation of public traffic into automatic vehicles without drivers," he said. When asked whether the labour market will be disrupted by the abolition of some places such as drivers, we received the answer that there is already a need for electronic technicians in Leuven.  After the presentation, the impression was that we are somehow already in the "smart city".

Nova ekonomija magazine writes what is that Belgrade could learn from Leuven, while Tanjug television conveyed in its report what life in the European Capital of Innovation looks like. Nedeljnik weekly writes about Leuven's plans to become climate neutral, but also conveys impressions from that Flemish city with some gems of Gothic architecture in its report entitled "You just need to turn the pedals in the right direction". N1 televison reported on whether Serbian "green certificates" were accepted in Belgium. For the participants of the media trip to Leuven, that was one of the strong impressions, too – life in Belgium during the pandemic.