Cleantech in Flanders – Insights from Cleantech Connected

Last tuesday iCleantech Flanders organised the Cleantech Connected conference in Brussels. The conference brought regional and international players together to discuss the future of cleantech and the opportunities for Flanders. There were around 250 participants, from industry, intermediary organisations and a few representatives from government and research institutions.

What is Cleantech?

Cleantech is more than clean, environmentally friendly technology. It offers besides environmental benefits also clear economic or even social benefits. There are a few big technology clusters in the USA and China. Cleantech in Europe is more dispersed into many small clusters. The main topics in Flanders are: energy, materials, water and mobility.

Cleantech in Flanders

Why Cleantech in Flanders?


European business are having difficulties to maintain traditional activities due to global competition, expensive energy and labour cost. According to James Woudhysen Europe fails to invest in Innovation. Innovation by applying cleantech offers potential to be ahead in global competition.

Social role manufacturing

Industrial manufacturing stays very important for Flanders according to Frank Lateur. It brings direct and indirect employment. A large proportion of the service sector supports industrial manufacturing. The loss of manufacturing would result in more polarisation of society. An important nuance in this is that we don’t need to create more production jobs. Due to the aging population there won’t be enough labour force at hand. Only by creativity and smartness will manufacturing keep up the game.

Beautiful world

Daan Roosegaarde gave many beautiful examples of how new technology can transform our environment and improve our quality of life. Factor 10 efficiencies can be achieved by applying cleantech and as a result speed up the sustainability transition. A few examples of the potentials were given during conference. Genetically modified trees who can absorb carbon in seven years and be used as carbon-sink for example.

How do we transform the system?

Less hierarchy

Melotte was highly praised as Flemish success story. Mario Fleurinck joked that he is the boss, but that apart from that there are no hierarchical structures. The biggest difference in the team is between analogue and digital workers. He used an anecdote to highlight that in hierarchical organisations major innovation trends that are of strategic significance are not always communicated to the top. Not only internal hierarchies are weakening. Tom Aelbrecht from Janssen Pharmaceutica argued that open innovation where multiple organisations and universities collaborate in multidisciplinary clusters are key to stay ahead in innovation.


In a global chain there are many steps to come to an end result. This results in a smaller profit margins per player and more chances for corruption. Digitalisation gave the public more tools to scrutinise corporations and this a new for them. Near-shore manufacturing shortens the chain and provides opportunities for customers to participate in decision making in the value-chain. In this way production can become more transparent.

Networking and financing

Business is tired of governments ever increasing role of controlling. They rather would like to work in partnership. Governments can take up the role of moderating the formation of networks and clusters. Funding innovation can provide a far higher societal return on investment than financing failing banks.

Can it be better?

Mainly (male) managers took the word at the conference. Their main conclusions were that more networking and more funding was necessary. The signals of environmentalist and control of governments were often seen as a barrier to innovation.

Emerging technologies can overcome the traditional dilemmas of choosing between the environment, society or economy. Emerging technologies can create environmental and economical, or social and economical, or environmental and social profits whilst the third pillar stays steady. In the best cases emerging technologies create profits on all three levels.

But there is a difficult balance to make in applying emerging technologies in innovation. They carry a lot of uncertainties, the potential toxicity of certain nano-materials for example. If a company is too quick in the innovation process, it can hit an environmental or social brick wall. If it’s too slow it can loose competitive advantage. Innovators can make a better balance by making enough hypothesis during the process, addressing the most pressing concerns and monitor the impacts after launching.

Cleantech can play a key role in making our future society liveable. But to come to a success story we’ll need a more constructive dialogue between business, governments, environmentalist and other social movements. There is a need for a different type of societal debate. Not debate where we focus on the mistakes of the past, but a public participation in the innovation process with a focus on where we want in the future.

reference material:

Nederlandse versie / Dutch version

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