Belgium aims to bring together innovative strands
Belgium's rich diversity of languages and cultures has not impaired the country's efforts to promote innovation. In fact, the country can boast a variety of approaches, as the manner of addressing innovation and R&D (research and development) promotion differs from region to region. This is one of the conclusions of a country report on Belgium in the context of the European trend chart on innovation prepared for the European Commission's Enterprise DG, which looks at developments in innovation promotion in the country over the period December 2000 to April 2001. Presenting a flat overview of developments in Belgium as a country is too simplistic. The devolution of key responsibilities and powers to a number of regional authorities means that an individual analysis is required. It is not just that there is the Belgian federal government and the three regional governments in Belgium (Flanders, Walloon and Brussels capital region), but there are also the three language communities (Flemish, French and German) in the country. The Flemish speaking community and the region of Flanders have taken steps to reduce provide a uniform approach, by merging their executive and parliament. In a country where devolution is so strong, it is not surprising that the federal government plays a limited role in innovation, as its competences are restricted to tax and competition policies. But the Belgian federal government has been taking important steps in tackling innovation in the country. It has recognised that the federal level of expenditure on R&D is below the EU average (0.5 per cent of GDP compared to 0.66 per cent). But the country's tremendous growth rate now outstrips all of its three larger neighbours (France, Germany and the Netherlands), with a GDP growth hitting 4 per cent in 2000, loosening constraints on the federal government. In 2000, the Belgian federal government outlined the areas it wants to develop in relation to innovation. Shortly after the Lisbon summit, the country's minister of economy and scientific research presented a policy note, highlighting 11 points as being of key importance. These included focusing on patents, promotion of scientific careers, federal research programmes, space research, technology and applications and tax deduction measures in favour of spin offs and start ups Of the regional governments, Flanders has taken the initiative of establishing a dedicated agency for delivering innovation policy, the IWT. It offers financial assistance, services and acts as a coordinator for technology transfer and innovation intermediaries in Flanders. The Flemish community is now the most important player in terms of R&D funding in Belgium, accounting for 40 per cent of available funds. The Flemish government has outlined three actions which will enhance its actions promoting innovation. They are support for collaborative networks, university-industry interfaces and subsidies for R&D in companies. The first of these involves the development of VIS (Flemish collaborative innovation networks). This will see a significant shift towards the funding of projects and results rather than funding for structures. Flanders is also planning to reduce the number of schemes available to SMEs, as there was less take up of larger number of smaller schemes previously on offer. Instead, a budget of almost 20 million euro has been established for two schemes, KMO innovation studies and KMO innovation projects (a call for these was launched in March 2001). The moves have been endorsed by the Flemish science policy council (VRWB), which has also emphasised that the important issue is not whether the companies that are supported through these measures are Flemish or international, but whether the project and its commercialisation will have a positive impact on the local economy in Flanders. The Walloon government has also been simplifying its measures promoting innovation. It has established a 'coupole' a one stop shop for financial aid to businesses. It has also been behind the launching of five technology clusters, also carried out through a call for proposals. Legislative changes include the Walloon government passing a regional decree on the creation of a pre-activity grant in February. This has as its premise the idea that funding for inventors and individuals with innovative ideas should lead to the creation of a private firm. It also approved the management contract for a scientific adventure park, along with an additional subsidy of 1.86 million euro. In terms of future policy, the science policy council of Wallonia has put forward seven suggestions for further action, which include improving the working conditions and training of researchers, ensuring that work on new technologies is examined in the light of the European Commission's Sixth Framework programme and support aimed at stimulating the commercial exploitation of research results. Despite being the smallest player in R&D terms, the Brussels capital region recently signalled its intent to make progress in terms of R&D and innovation. The government of Brussels region capital has declared that its aim is to increase public funding for innovation, reform the regional instruments and legal basis for supporting innovation and commercialisation and concentrate on specific sectors. As all the individual elements of the country forge ahead with innovation plans and policies it is the country overall that benefits. But as the report states, this more detailed analysis of the country is necessary as very few policies or measures are purely national.