More than just tourism, Bruges invests in innovation

Known worldwide as a fairytale city for its magnificent architecture and luxurious canals, the Flemish city of Bruges attracts millions of tourists every year. But the city is much more than a tourist destination.

From the 15th century, when Bruges was one of Europe’s most important commercial centres, with ships from Genova and from all over the world arriving with spices and other products, to the 21st century, the city has always been innovative, with a globally oriented mercantile spirit.

“Innovation is part of our city’s DNA,” says Lut Laleman, Head of the Department of Employability and Economics of the City of Bruges.

Innovation to bring Bruges to the 21st century

The Port of Bruges, Zeebrugge, is amongst the world leaders in car handling and is also in the process of merging with the much larger Port of Antwerp. Moreover, “in its governance programme of 2020-2025 the city council of Bruges emphasises the importance of innovation and creativity. As a strong sign, they nominated an alderman responsible for ‘smart city projects and climate change,’” says Laleman.

Lut Laleman, Head of the Department of Employability and Economics of the City of Bruges
Lut Laleman, Head of the Department of Employability and Economics of the City of Bruges

A UNESCO world heritage site, the city doesn’t stand still and is planning to build a new state of the art museum and opened a new Meeting & Convention Centre (BMCC) on 21 December to stimulate encounters and host international congresses with a focus on innovation. “Being only a short distance away from its fellow Bruges landmark – Concertgebouw Brugge -, the new centre allows the city to position itself even more as a location that international expo, congress and events sector won’t want to miss out on,” says Laleman.

Innovation is part of our city's DNA
— Lut Laleman, City of Bruges

Sustainability is key, notes Laleman. “Having an event at the BMCC means making a sustainable choice. From the green roof on the building that buffers rainwater, purifies the air and regulates the indoor temperature, to the recyclable materials and local suppliers and products we use for events.”

Tourism… and much more

As anyone can imagine, tourism is one of the city’s major economic assets and Bruges is promoting a more sustainable type of tourism.  In 2019, the city presented its new strategic vision memorandum tourism 2019-2024 which promulgates the principle, “that tourism not only contributes to the local economy but also generates social added value.”

Laleman explains that they are “not striving for more tourism, but for better tourism in which not only visitors and entrepreneurs, but in particular the residents occupy the central stage. In this way, tourism in Bruges supports the desired dynamic of the entire city which is balanced, connected, attractive and enterprising. The plan turned out to be a source of inspiration for other public authorities to adjust their vision of tourism.

To achieve our ambitions, we strongly believe in data-driven decision making and we integrate new technologies of data collection and analysis within our operations.”

As early as 2015, Tourism Bruges started mapping visitor numbers and profiles based on big data, obtained by analysing mobile data traffic. Laleman also explains that “in the years that followed, this system was refined so that today, at the level of the historic city centre, we have a good view of how many people visit the city, what their profile is, from where they come and if they visit one of our museums.

“This year we are also involved in an EU project, ‘VLOED,’ with a living lab in the city centre collecting data (passages) that gives the city of Bruges and local shops an overview of the people passing through each hour.”


However, she notes that tourism also has its downside, since “the number of tourist shops and fast food takeaways is rising as a lot of retail and HORECA is tourist-focused.”

In order to diversify Bruges’ economy, the city and local university, the society of economic development of the province of West Flanders and the West Flemish network of enterprises (VOKA, chamber of commerce), jointly created Brugge.inc in 2020, a start-up incubator that has already funded 10 innovative projects in the areas of mechatronics and IT since February 2021.

Tourism in Bruges supports the desired dynamic of the entire city which is balanced, connected, attractive and enterprising
— Lut Laleman, City of Bruges

“We don’t have the ambition to beat Antwerp or Leuven, but we want to be on the shortlist whenever startups are considering their place to start. We want to attract 100 startups in 5 years,” says Laleman. In line with its innovation drive, Bruges has also created a creative hub – Republiek –, a combination of cinema, pub and space for makers in the centre of the city.

“We have a gathering of all startups that are into creativity. We have a label for people who combine old and new technologies produced in the city and we have projects to promote entrepreneurship among university students.”

Helping those vulnerable

But the city also cares about the elderly and those in situations of vulnerability. Through ‘Mintus,’ that in dialectal Dutch means ‘my house,’ the city has introduced technology to support the quality and efficiency of their care, bringing all services related to the elderly together and also organising ‘living labs’ in cooperation with universities, professionals, hospitals and private companies on innovation projects for the elderly.

Laleman explains that “in the retirement and care home Ter Potterie for example, we have set up an intelligent modular platform that links different external systems like wander detection, home automation, access control, and a building management system. This optimises the workflow, reduces intervention time and increases the wellbeing of the elderly.

Human Centric Lighting saves energy and reduces CO2 emissions, while also augmenting the inhabitants wellbeing and health: increasing light in the living room invites people for dinner time and adapting colours influence the biologic rhythm, which has a huge impact on the spirit and reduces the use of medicine.

Bruges' city centre.
Bruges’ city centre. Image by dimitrisvetsikas1969 at Pixabay
We don’t have the ambition to beat Antwerp or Leuven, but we want to be considered as well. We want to attract 100 startups in 5 years.
— Lut Laleman, City of Bruges

Mintus also invests in renewable energy.  Since 1982, long before the hot climate discussions, the general hospital Sint-Jan has been heated by the residual heat of an incinerator.

Last, but not least, Bruges also has a programme to try to reinsert the youth into school and the labour market. The EU-project ‘Ant-woord!,’ meaning ‘answer’ and also ‘listen, I’m talking’, aims to reach out to youths who are not currently in work or studying, and, according to Laleman, “each year we have 50-80 people that we coach and they go back to the system, from 16 years old and up. They often have drug problems, alcoholism in the family, poverty, etc.”

Focusing on the city’s biggest strengths, such as tourism, mechatronics, the port and technology, Bruges is doing its best to prepare for the future and to provide a better life for its citizens aiming at innovation, care and sustainability.