Digital Frontrunners Spotlight: Belgium

As a Digital Frontrunner country, Belgium is committed to the the digitisation of the workplace, and consistently performs near the top in such rankings. In order to reap the benefits of this digital transformation, the country will need to address the shortage of skilled professionals it is experiencing; this Spotlight highlights the country’s innovative efforts to do so.

It’s a response to the fact that it performs just slightly above the EU average when it comes to equipping citizens with ‘basic’ digital skills. It ranks 12th in the human capital category, struggling particularly in the number of STEM graduates.

As illustrated by the initiatives in this Spotlight, Belgium is committed to boosting its performance in these areas and delivering the digital skills training required to prepare the workforce for the digital era. Crucially, a number of recently launched initiatives focus on an inclusive, user-centred approach that seek to include people from all backgrounds.

Many of the initiatives featured in this article highlight the need to go beyond developing basic digital skills, with an emphasis on developing entrepreneurial know-how for example. Fostering such skills will lead to a more resilient workforce, capable of adapting to the changes that come with an increasingly digital workplace.

The main driving force behind these efforts is called Digital Belgium, a strategy initiated by the Belgian Government in 2015. The strategy has incorporated three goals for 2020 which address several gaps in the labour market:

  1. To be in the top three in the Digital Economy and Society Index
  2. To introduce 1,000 new startups
  3. To create 50,000 new jobs in a wide range of sectors.

The government has also invested 6 million euros in digital skills training on a yearly basis to address the skills shortage. The Digital Champions website compiles all the digital skills initiatives in Belgium and offers a glimpse of what is currently happening in this field.

In this Spotlight blog we outline several of these initiatives, exemplifying Belgium’s efforts to upskill its workforce.

"The digital revolution is an opportunity revolution. Anyone can make it into the digital world, if you have the right skills”

The Deputy Prime Minister Alexander de Croo

1. Belgium Digital Skills Fund

Last year the Digital Belgium Skills Fund [1] was established by Deputy Prime Minister and Federal Minister of Digital Agenda Alexander De Croo. It supports and funds projects that educate socially vulnerable young people and adults in digital skills. The starting budget was 18 million euros and this year 37 new projects were funded [2].
To secure inclusion in digital skills training; to support the creation of a diverse workforce of the future; and to make sure nobody gets left behind in a rapidly changing labour market.
The training initiatives are selected by the King Boudewijn Foundation [3]. They apply a selection criteria which states that initiatives should be targeted at people under 30, with the priority given to socially vulnerable young people. Each selected project is eligible to receive financial support between €50,000 - €500,000.
162 applications were processed in 2018, an increase of 50 on the previous year. The 37 chosen initiatives were a combination of newly and currently funded ones such as BeCode [4] - a coding school helping young adults to become professional programmers regardless of their current knowledge or background. The project was piloted in Brussels and operates now in both Flanders and Wallonia. Another well-established project launched through this fund is Interface3Namur [5], which coordinates a project called “My Future is Digital”. It delivers training courses that focus on software development, digital literacy and digital skills to develop services for SMEs.

2. BeCentral

BeCentral is a digital training center providing activities and networking opportunities for citizens. It is aimed at people with limited computer skills and located above the central railroad station in Brussels. it hosts a community of residents including coding schools, NGOs and startups. Members of the training centre are brought together by an eagerness to learn about other initiatives and use it as an opportunity to share best-practice. BeCentral was founded in 2016 by several experts with a background in startups, academia, venture capital and government. Alexander De Croo, Federal Minister for the Digital Agenda, is one of the founders of the center.
There is a need for a place that offers digital skills training where age and qualification doesn’t matter. The high-level goal of the project is to close the digital skills gap and contribute to Belgium’s Digital Transformation. The project aims to reach people with limited computer skills and make digital skills more accessible by organising training and networking activities on its premises.
BeCentral has created a co-working space where it hosts and organises training sessions, seminars, hackathons, digital schools and workshops. Being in the central railway station of Brussels makes it highly accessible to all. The doors are open for everyone - even for curious travellers who are simply passing by.
BeCentral has successfully established an entrepreneurial ecosystem around digital skills and many of its initiatives have been contributing to closing the skills gap in the country. One of the initiatives is BeCode [6] which is a free coding school aiming to target people that are currently unemployed.

3. Studio Digital !Drops

Studio Digital is a project from !DROPS, a social innovation agency tackling social issues (funded by Digital Belgium Skills Fund). The project trains and mentors vulnerable groups such as refugees and people struggling with addiction in digital skills.
Empowering vulnerable groups is one way of addressing the skills deficit in Belgium. The programme seeks to introduce them into the labour market and foster a more inclusive digital economy.
Studio Digital aims to guide its participants in the development of their own projects by recognizing their individual talent and passions. The concrete training methods include creative sessions and workshops where new technologies such as apps and IoT devices are introduced to participants. After the exploration and experimentation sessions, the participants are offered a detailed pathway to obtain the skills needed to succeed in their chosen area of technological interest. The next stage is focused on building the entrepreneurial competencies of the participants and helping them to develop their own projects.
Studio Digital by !Drops has been working on digital inclusion by organising Studio Digital workshops at five different locations in the Flanders region during 2017. The number has been growing this year and the project is constantly organising workshops all over the region.

4. Molen Geek

The MolenGeek project started in 2015 with a coding school for citizens, and to foster inclusion and community development. It focuses on young people with limited tech talent who are living in the so-called risk areas in Belgium. In addition to the coding school, the community hosts a coworking space, focused on new technologies and produces different types of networking events. The MolenGeek coding course lasts six months and teaches programming to a group of 15 students at a time.
Besides just offering digital skills training, MolenGeek sees value in teaching entrepreneurial skills for its participants. It is important that coworkers meet new people, network, create professional connections, train in new entrepreneurial techniques and help each other. According to Google [7], one of the funders of the project, there is a growing need to help Europe close the digital skills gap and give access to opportunities to a wider group of people.
The co-working space is open for everyone hoping to learn about web development and entrepreneurial people looking to start their own business in the tech sector. A well-equipped space is free to use for everyone. In return, members contribute by engaging in different tasks in the community: participating in events, helping to maintain the workspace, and sharing their knowledge and skills with other members.
The community-led atmosphere and learning by doing attitude has received media coverage recently [8] and the project has received funding from various companies [9] including the tech giants Google and Samsung. The Deputy Prime Minister Alexander De Croo is supporting the project by advocating it in the country and abroad [10] and funding it through Digital Belgium. MolenGeek holds an excellent success rate as 90% of the programme participants have either obtained a job or internship using their newly acquired skills or pursued further training. Twelve startups are currently being incubated in Molengeek; Hackathon events have produced tangible results positively impacting people’s lives, such as incorporating live geolocation of defibrillators when people call the emergency services.

5. [email protected]

Launched in 2006, [email protected] is a collaboration between the City of Ghent, the social welfare services, several local organisations and Digipolis, the telematics provider for the cities of Antwerp and Ghent. It leverages these pre-existing networks to establish digital inclusion as a priority for public services and the labour market. It’s first challenge was to to enable everyone in the city to access to digital tools and services. Over a decade later, [email protected] has helped launch numerous initiatives for digital skills and inclusion.
[email protected] was built on the premise that services are more likely to be taken up by citizens if they are meaningfully involved in the creation process. By working closely with a variety of stakeholders, the programme is able to create sustainable and inclusive initiatives that accelerate Ghent’s digital transformation and promote lifelong learning.
Research, feedback and evaluation drive the continued development of its projects. Questions to volunteers in the Digital Competence Centres are logged, and regular evaluations of citizens’ needs guides the improvement of digital inclusion initiatives and the digitalisation of public services in Ghent. Like research, the strategy of engagement with key partners has remained effective as [email protected] has developed. As its scope has grown to encompass digital skills training, the programme has sought increased participation from employers to ensure that its activities support labour market demand.
It has so far succeeded in improving the skills and driving the digital inclusion of over 20,000 people per year. To achieve this, the core team conducted focus groups with citizens and social partners to shape the design of services. This research was evaluated by a working group of local representatives from educational institutions, the social welfare authority, and organisations working with disadvantaged groups. Their deliberation led to the establishment of Digital Competence Centres and Digital Lending Services, through which citizens and local organisations can access digital tools and training


Juan Casasbuenas

Juan Casasbuenas

Juan Casasbuenas

Curriculum and Content Manager

Juan was a Curriculum and Content Manager supporting the Digital Frontrunners and Global Innovation Policy Accelerator programmes.

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