A forward-looking government should make its citizens dream every now and then. But whether an icon from the past is the right instrument for this is very doubtful.
The eighties are all the way back. You can already feel it on the bizarre fashion trend with oversize pants and sweaters, in TV shows about the 80s and this week even with a party chairman who well-meaningly described his new foreign minister as a ‘hot Thatcher’. It was almost inevitable that someone would also let the spirit of Flanders Technology out of the bottle.
Flemish Prime Minister Jan Jambon (N-VA) wants to write an ‘advertising story’ for Flanders with a re-release of this legendary technology fair and to combat ‘acidification in society’. These goals are noble, but are his means sufficient? Going back to the past to show how good you are is a bit reminiscent of the ‘Victory Day’ parade on Red Square or the annual flag waving under the Iron Tower. Anyone younger than 40 can hardly imagine anything at Flanders Technology.
The longing for a shot of nostalgia is understandable. There are some similarities between the current era and the 1980s. Certainly at the beginning of that decade a mood of doom was prevalent. The inflation monster of the 1970s may have been tamed, but in return we got bankruptcies and unemployment, a sky-high government debt and a devalued Belgian franc. The news was dominated by the war in the Falkland Islands, fears of nuclear war and terror.
At the same time, the eighties, certainly as the decade progressed, were a time of faith in the future and technical ingenuity. The Americans launched their brand new space shuttle, the space shuttle, while the Europeans planned super-fast trains and a tunnel under the Channel. Everyone realized that the world was on the brink of a digital revolution. The first CD players and home computers appeared in the living room. France was ahead of its time with Minitel, a digital communications service that was a forerunner of the Internet.
Thanks to Flanders Technology, Flemings could once be proud of things other than scratching lions and ancient bell towers.
Even today, we live in a bipolar age where we are torn between doomsday and dreams. After two years of corona misery, violent inflation, a war on the European continent and ominous climate prospects followed. But after all, there is also the belief that the ‘roaring thieves’ are just around the corner: a decade of great technological leaps that will usher in a new era of prosperity. In the optimistic view, simultaneous breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, biotechnology, robotics, new energy and other areas will increase economic productivity and melt the problems of the past.
In such a difficult transition period, it may be a good idea for the government to come up with a recruitment project that in turn gives citizens confidence in the future. Gaston Geens, the first Flemish Prime Minister (although still called ‘President of the Flemish Executive’ at the time) had well understood this. His DIRV program (for ‘Flanders’ third industrial revolution) supported the development of the microchip industry, biotechnology and new materials in Flanders.
Forty years later, we can safely call this a success: Flanders has become a world leader in biotech, with Imec we have the most important research institute for electronics in the house, and an old industrial giant like Union Minière has successfully turned into an innovative materials specialist.
Flanders Technology was the last piece of the DIRV campaign: a giant shop window housed in the all-new Ghent Expo Hall, where Flemish people could marvel at the computers and robots of the future, and where companies, colleges and universities could appeal to young people. In its first two editions, in 1983 and 1985, the fair attracted more than 100,000 visitors each time. It was widely reported in the newspapers and on television. There was, as it is called today, ‘support’ for the event.
It is difficult to determine to what extent the Flemish technology successes are due to the DIRV program, or whether Geens was merely dependent on trends that were happening anyway. But his action plan received broad support. In the first Flemish government, all parties were proportionately represented, and there was a strong will to demonstrate that Flanders did better than it did itself. It enabled Geens to get the people involved in his story. Thanks to DIRV and Flanders Technology, Flemish people could once again be proud of other things than scratching lions and old bell towers.
That support is lacking today. The revival of Flanders Technology seems to be primarily motivated by the desire to give a worn government team some shine. It is not clear exactly with what promotional history Jambon wants to show itself. What does Flanders focus on, where can our region be a world leader in 2030 or 2040? Before arranging a major show, we should nevertheless reach a consensus that can last a few legislative assemblies.
Where can Flanders be the world top in 2030 or 2040? Before we arrange a big show, there should be consensus on it.
The search for recruitment projects can take some time and involve various parties, ranging from companies and academics to trade unions and civic movements. Let them think of a ‘big hairy bold goal’, a big and concrete challenge that everyone can support. Halving traffic jams, making housing economical and affordable, improving the quality of life of the elderly, we mention just a few.
Let researchers and companies come up with solutions, support the best ideas from the government and map out how much progress we have made year after year. Promote collaboration between universities and industry, ensure cross-fertilization between sectors. This is the way the Americans got the first human on the moon in ten years, and where we have developed effective corona vaccines in record time. Even if we do not reach the big goal, other interesting projects will follow.
Whether we should show these results at a trade show is ultimately less relevant. There will probably be information channels in the roaring thieves that can appeal to the youngsters more, whether it is TikTok or the meta-verse.
Over the years, Jambon’s predecessors have already compiled an entire library of ‘appealing’ action plans, from ‘Flanders-Europe 2002’ (Luc Van den Brande) and ‘Flanders in Action’ (Kris Peeters) to ‘Vision 2050’ (Geert Bourgeois)) . The Jambon tech fair may have a larger gadget content, but without ambitious and concrete goals, it threatens to become the so many paper tigers in a long line.