The Belgian Government plans to release its national AI strategy in the first quarter of 2021. The objective of the national AI strategy is to provide a strategic and operational action plan for the development of AI in Belgium. It takes stock of the policy report of the AI4BELGIUM coalition and presents ongoing actions and plans for the future along three strategic pillars and thematic priorities:
- Creating a technological impact by supporting high-quality expertise in AI and outlining a responsible data strategy for AI;
- Ensuring social and economic benefits by encouraging continuous skills development in AI, building a robust and prosperous AI economy and optimising public services through AI;
- Building appropriate conditions for the development of an ethical, resilient and secure society through AI.
The transversal nature of AI and its pervasive impact on the Belgian economy and society at large, calls for a multi-level governance approach given the division of competencies in a federal state such as Belgium. To take this into account, the Belgian AI strategy presents policy actions at federal and regional level, distinguishing between measures for the Federal State, Flanders, the Walloon region, Brussels Capital and those of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation.
In March 2019, the Flemish Government launched the Flemish action plan to foster AI in Flanders. The Flemish AI action plan foresees an annual budget of EUR 32 million for its implementation, broken down as follows: EUR 15 million dedicated to the implementation of AI within companies, EUR 12 million allocated to basic research, and EUR 5 million to supporting measures (training, ethical and legal aspects related to AI-adoption, and outreach activities). This funding is complemented with other policy instruments of both FWO (funding for HEIs) and VLAIO (funding for enterprises). In 2020 FWO invested about EUR 15 million and VLAIO some EUR 45 million in AI related projects. The same amounts are expected for the following years.
In the Walloon region the DigitalWallonia4.ai programme has the objective of accelerating the adoption of AI in the region. This programme is supported by the Digital Agency, Agoria, the ICT Cluster Infopole and the AI Network. Its official launch was celebrated on November 27, 2019 but the effective start took place on July 1, 2019. The overall budget, which also includes industry 4.0 and the regional digital strategy "Digital Wallonia", is EUR 18 million per year. Since December 2020, the regional AI programme includes a research project called "ARIAC by DigitalWallonia4.ai" launched in the framework of the TRAIL consortium, which brings together universities and research centres in the Wallonia-Brussels Federation. The EUR 32 million project is funded by the Walloon Region and runs from 2021 to 2026.
Although the Brussels region does not have a dedicated action plan for AI, it launched a wide range of initiatives in order to boost AI-related activities in Brussels. All these initiatives have been recently listed on a new website, in order to clarify the regional support offer for AI. This website includes information over all the public and semi-public programmes, and more specifically everything related to funding, training, accelerations programmes, support services, the AI ecosystem and available data.
Besides, in the last two years, the regional innovation funding body Innoviris has been playing a major role in the support of AI-related research and innovation effort, through a strong development of its support programmes with a dedicated budget of EUR 22 million. Overall, the region has already invested around EUR 44 million in AI since 2017.
The Belgian AI strategy draws up a comprehensive overview of AI actions and support programmes at federal level and in the various regional ecosystems. A summary of the national and regional AI policy initiatives is presented below across the main policy areas related to human capital, R&D and innovation, networking, regulation and infrastructure.
One of the key cornerstones for a successful deployment of an AI ecosystem is the access to human capital in AI. Against this background, the Belgian strategy highlights the need to encourage continuous development and maintenance of AI knowledge. The Belgian AI strategy aims to tackle this challenge at various fronts.
First, it foresees the reinforcement of human skills in AI at all education levels. This includes reforms at primary, secondary and tertiary education levels to integrate AI-related courses and programmes in the school curricula. It equally requires training and upskilling opportunities for teachers to teach AI-related courses. Second, various policies provide tailored incentives for lifelong learning and reskilling at large scale through massive open online course (MOOCs) and reskilling programmes to acquire the necessary digital skills.
In order to foster the development of AI knowledge and skills in Flanders, the Flemish Government supports various policies to increase STEM and digital skills (including AI-related subjects) at all education levels:
- Stimulating AI in primary and secondary education through the Smart Education @ Schools programme, and tools such as the EDUbox on AI, the STEM academy (with an overview of all STEM-related activities outside school hours for students between 5 and 18 years), and STEM partnerships;
- The Flemish Agency for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (VLAIO), in collaboration with the Flemish Ministry of Education, aims to foster personalised learning methods in digital skills in primary and secondary education through projects as “School of the Future” and i-learn;
- Supporting the reform of Bachelors and Masters Programmes to include AI-related courses (a list of academic offers in Flemish universities is available in the national AI strategy);
- The Flemish Government has approved its “Action plan DigiJump”, which is an ICT plan to support schools in delivering qualitative digital education with attention for data literacy, data usage and AI.
In addition to education reforms, the Flemish Government also supports practical courses in STEM and AI-related subjects in the context of lifelong learning, targeting the workforce and citizens in general:
- The higher levels of secondary schools can call upon DataBuzz and the VUB AI Experience centre for educational support on AI and robotics applications and demonstrations. The two expertise centres on Data and Society and Media Literacy cooperated in creating open teaching modules on AI that are distributed via the educational portal Klascement (targeting schools);
- Massive online courses: Already two online courses on AI organised by Agoria and a MOOC from the Flemish Employment and Vocational Training Service (VDAB) to understand the basics of AI, to learn about the business drivers for AI and to receive practical guidance on how to get started with AI business opportunities;
- The master course on Data Innovation beyond the Hype led by the Sirris Data and AI Competence Lab (EluciDATA Lab), provides pragmatic and industry-oriented sessions and webinars on data-driven innovation;
- The AI Academy, an initiative set up by the Howest University of Applied Sciences (Howest) and the Flemish employer’s organisation (Voka), offering a series of seminars for entrepreneurs interested in AI applications.
Overall, the Flemish action plan for AI foresees the following investments to enhance continuous skills developments in AI:
- Fostering and developing strong digital skills for students, doctoral candidates and high profile professionals via the Flemish AI Academythat collects, creates and distributes courses and trainings on AI (EUR 1 000 000 per year);
- Accelerating the cross-cutting implementation of digitalisation through targeted initiatives for the coaching and guidance of schools and teachers (EUR 1 000 000 per year);
- Improving AI/digital skills competence building in the job/on the floor (EUR 1 000 000 per year).
The Wallonia-Brussels Federation
The growing importance of AI in society is reflected by its increased presence in education. More AI training in primary, secondary and tertiary education systems is fostered through the following actions in the Wallonia-Brussels Federation:
- Provision of state-of-the-art technology equipment to the primary and secondary schools of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation through the Digital School project;
- Projects to raise pupils’ awareness of new technologies on a pedagogical platform (E-class), to motivate pupils to acquire ICT skills (ICT passport), to organise conferences for school leaders and teachers on emerging trends and changes in education (#edTechforum) and to provide initiation courses on coding for pupils and computer science courses for teachers (Wallcode);
- The Wallonia Wonder Women campaign fosters the participation of girls in science and technology fields;
- University Masters and Bachelors tracks containing AI-related courses (a list of academic offers in Walloon and Brussels’ universities is available in the national AI strategy).
The Brussels-Capital Region
The Brussels-Capital Region is committed to raising awareness among students and promoting the choice to engage in a STEM discipline, through various initiatives:
- STEM Projects, a programme granting subsidies to entities (companies, non-profit organisations, research centres) promoting STEM. 80 to 90 projects are thus taken up annually, receiving a subsidy ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 euros;
- Brussels Science Promotion Network, a networking programme for actors active in the field of science promotion;
- STEM Project Call, a funding programme for STEM micro-projects. In 2021, the theme of the project call is "Science for Climate";
- The yearly election of a Science Ambassador to promote science and technology to women;
- The yearly edition of the I Love Science Festival, which consists of three days of experiments, labs, activities, conferences, workshops and exhibitions. 2
Following policy actions are ongoing to equip the current and future workforce with digital and AI-related skills in the Brussels-Capital Region:
- IT training and awareness raising by mapping the various ICT courses available mainly for jobseekers and students in the Brussels Region;
- The establishment of Digitalcity.brussels, as part of Brussels Next Tech plan, to improve the quality and availability of ICT training in Brussels region, among others;
- Supporting initiatives that provide digital and AI-related courses and training for the workforce and job seekers, such as the technology hub MolenGeek, the BeCode training programme in AI, and Numeria providing a complete training programme for business, project or developer profiles with 4 skill levels.
The Wallonia-Brussels Federation (WBF), Walloon region and Brussels-Capital region aim to further strengthen collaborations in education in the future as stated in WBF’s Declaration of community policy 2019-2024 and the General policy statement 2019-2024 of the Walloon Government.
From the lab to the market
The Belgian AI strategy contains a myriad of policy initiatives to spur research and innovations in AI. The objective is to support businesses in their innovative process in bringing AI applications to the market and to create a competitive enterprise-driven AI ecosystem. At the federal level, research and innovation are stimulated through a series of tax incentives. This is achieved through favourable tax measures of R&D staff, deduction of notional interests for companies, and tax credits among others. In addition, the public service responsible for programming science policy (Belspo) is funding a wide range of AI-related research projects.
Furthermore, the Belgian AI strategy calls for initiatives to stimulate the uptake of AI applications in the public administration. Several federal public services (FPS) have introduced AI methodologies to increase the efficiency and quality of their services. FPS BOSA has also a number of ongoing initiatives concerning the development of AI applications (e.g. the use of AI for a chatbot pilot and for the audit of the accessibility of websites).
These federal measures are complemented with ongoing and planned policy actions at regional level.
To strengthen cutting-edge strategic research on AI in Flanders, the Flemish Government approved the implementation of the AI research programme in June 2019. This programme is the first pillar of the Flemish action plan to foster AI in Flanders. With an annual budget of EUR 12 million, the AI Research Programme supports demand-driven applied research in Flanders in the field of AI and addresses four strategic challenges:
- Help to make complex decisions through data science: hybrid, automated, trusted, and actionable;
- Deliver AI to the edge: real-time & power efficient AI;
- Interact autonomously with other decision-making entities: multi-agent collaborative AI;
- Communicate and collaborate seamlessly with humans: human like AI.
Roadmaps have been developed for each challenge, including feasibility milestones. The research programme is adapted each year to meet future research needs.
The research agenda for AI in Flanders is supported by a wide range of academic institutions, research laboratories, associations and governmental institutions such as the federal employer’s organisation (Agoria), the Flemish Department of Economy, Science and Innovation (Ewi), the Flemish research foundation (FWO), the Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre (Imec), the collaborative research centre for Belgian technology industry (Sirris), the Flemish Agency for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (VLAIO), and the Flemish employer’s organisation (Voka).
Financial support of the Flemish AI research programme is complemented with funding available through the regular, bottom-up instruments of both FWO (funding for HEIs) and VLAIO (funding for enterprises). Thanks to these regular instruments, in 2020 FWO invested about EUR 15 million and VLAIO some EUR 45 million in AI related projects.
Lastly, cutting-edge research in AI is further supported through the establishment of the VUB AI experience centre and initiatives for public-private partnerships between research, industry and public authorities such as the City of Things project on smart cities in Antwerp.
A second part of the Flemish AI policy plan focuses on the implementation of AI in the Flemish business community and support for AI innovations. Under this implementation component, VLAIO is designated as a driving force. With an annual budget of EUR 15 million, different types of actions with the following objectives are put forward:
- To raise awareness, to inform and to advise companies about the possibilities of AI;
- To guide and support companies in their AI applications;
- To support companies developing AI technology.
The Flemish AI policy plan also draw particular attention on the development of AI for the healthcare sector. In line with the Flemish policy plan for 2019-2024 and the framework of Flanders Care, a specific focus is given to support new cooperation models between the public health care sector and the industry. Agoria has recently launched an AI-MOOC for the health sector.
Finally, to further promote AI innovations, Flanders supports the development of test environments. To this purpose, the Sandbox Vlaanderen initiative has been launched to provide companies a safe environment to test and validate new products and technologies. Although this initiative is not specifically targeting AI, it is beneficial to AI start-ups and SMEs that search for testing, piloting and experimentation infrastructure.
With respect to the uptake and stimulation of AI in public administration, the Flemish region foresees the following initiatives:
- The courses and training offerings of the FAIA (see elsewhere) can also be attended by civil servants;
- Innovative Public Procurement programme: this programme is an initiative of the Flemish Government and is managed by the Flemish Department of Economy, Science and Innovation (Ewi). It enables different public services to launch innovative AI projects, among others. The public services which form part of this programme are entitled to fifty percent co-financing for the implementation of their projects.
The national AI strategy document also provides a comprehensive overview of existing and planned AI applications in public services.
The Walloon Region
As part of the DigitalWallonia4.ai programme to accelerate the adoption of AI in Wallonia, two action plans have been launched to foster the development of AI innovations in Walloon businesses:
- Start AI programme: the objective is to support companies in their discovery of AI, through a 3-day coaching by one of the members of the AI expert pool of Digital Wallonia. The AI expert helps businesses to identify opportunities through AI, measure their return on investment and define an action plan for the implementation of AI. 4 calls for "Start AI" projects have been launched since the launch of the programme. More than 60 companies have been supported by the Experts of the DigitalWallonia4.ai AI Expert Pool;
- Tremplin AI programme: this initiative intends to support promising proof of concepts (PoCs) on AI in the Walloon Region. Currently, the programme supports 19 PoCs submitted by individual firms and 8 PoCs involving a collaborative consortium of firms. More PoCs may be supported in the future, potentially within sectoral themes;
- Cap AI programme: launched in April 2021, this programme aims to support companies in bringing their AI solution to market with the help of a strategic expert.
In order to further support Walloon digital start-ups, the Digital Wallonia programme established the Wallonia Innovation and Growth (W.I.N.G) fund. Launched in 2016, more than 60 start-ups were already eligible for funding totalling around EUR 7 million of financial support.
Several subsidies, and financial grants to companies have been simplified and brought together in the form of a business voucher. Launched in 2017, this business support system helps to speed up, and simplify the access to financial support. In total, over EUR 2 million of funding has already been allocated in the form of vouchers for almost 400 companies.
With respect to the uptake and stimulation of AI in public administration, the Walloon region foresees the following initiatives:
- Establishment of a Chief Information Officer (CIO): A CIO team was established in 2019 for a three year period to develop an integrated digital strategy for the Walloon Public Services, focusing on building innovative and inclusive digital governance;
- As part of the Digital Wallonia strategy, the Smart Region project aims to propose a new model of governance for Walloon cities in order to transform them into Smart Cities. The idea is therefore to rethink the experience of public administration offered to citizens. A budget of EUR 4 million was allocated to the Smart Region project in 2019;
- As part of the DigitalWallonia4.ai programme, a study on the impact of AI in the public sector has been funded. In addition, a Start AI programme dedicated solely to public organisations was developed.
Lastly, Wallonia is making its mark with an ambitious research initiative called Trusted AI Labs (TRAIL) launched with the help of Digital Wallonia, among others. TRAIL is a consortium bringing together the universities and research centres of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation. TRAIL is partly materialised through the TRAIL Factory marketplace, which represents a platform for hosting technological bricks developed by research in Wallonia for the Walloon and international ecosystem. The platform is currently under development.
Within the framework of TRAIL, a first research project was formalised in December 2020. This project is called "ARIAC by DigitalWallonia4.ai" and is based on an agreement between the Walloon Region - including a major involvement of the Public Service of Wallonia on Economy, Employment and Research (SPW-EER) - and the actors of the TRAIL consortium. This research project has a budget of EUR 32 million spread between 2021 and 2026. In particular, it aims to finance 50 PhDs in 4 technological orientations seen as strategic for the Region: Human and AI, Trusted AI, AI-models hybridisation and Embedded AI.
The Brussels-Capital Region
In the last two years, the regional innovation funding body Innoviris has been playing a major role in the support of AI-related research and innovation efforts in Brussels. Back in 2018, Innoviris launched for instance the Anticipate programme to support projects implemented by academic researchers who have a forward-looking vision in the field of AI. Financial and operational support for applied research in AI is achieved through a strong development of policy programmes of Innoviris, such as:
- The R&D Project: a financial support instrument made available by Innoviris to companies wishing to implement an innovative R&D project;
- The Joint R&D Project: a funding programme to foster collaboration between academia and the industry. In 2020, the theme of the programme was ‘The Industry of Tomorrow: Green, Human & Smart”, referring in particular to AI;
- International projects set-up: a funding programme to help companies in preparing submissions for European R&D programmes (e.g. Horizon 2020, Horizon Europe);
- Eureka clusters: Innoviris offers support to companies interested in joining the European network Eureka Clusters, which brings together a multitude of companies with a common objective: to invest together in the development of new technologies in sectors that are strategic for European competitiveness, such as AI.
From an industrially focused approach, Innoviris has a wide range of initiatives to foster innovation in AI, such as:
- Innovation vouchers: a maximum of EUR 10,000 in financial aid offered by Innoviris for limited technical support in a research centre. This initiative mainly targets start-ups and SMEs and echoes the Start AI programme of Digital Wallonia;
- In addition to the various R&D programmes mentioned above, Innoviris funds AI and data related projects for more than EUR 6 million subsidy per year (equivalent to a quarter of its budget dedicated to industrial support) through its open calls dedicated to companies;
- Financial support for start-ups (not specifically targeting AI) through initiatives on seed capital funding (Bruseed), business concepts (proof of business), and incubation and coaching services (ICAB);
- As part of Brussels Next Tech plan for the period 2017-2020, the Brussels Capital region has supported various AI-related projects involving companies, research centres and academic institutions.
While the approach so far was meant to be cross-sectorial, Innoviris is now engaged in a more specialised track with for example an ongoing call dedicated to predictive medicine and an upcoming call dedicated to Industry 4.0.
The SPW-EER also offers funding programmes dedicated to research. Numerous actions are regularly published and address a wide range of research fields, including digital and AI:
- Win2Wal: support research projects with a high potential of valorisation in themes linked to identified strategic industrial needs;
- BelCOO: Innovate in collaboration with companies in Flanders, Wallonia and/or Brussels and work on a transregional research or development project.
Finally, with a view to achieving greater gender equality, the Brussels Capital Government intends to promote women’s entrepreneurship in digital and technology oriented fields. Initiatives such as Women in Tech aim to empower women in the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
A wide range of policy initiatives have been deployed at national and regional level to encourage networking, raise the international attractiveness and increase awareness on AI.
National and regional governments have appointed National Contact Points (NCPs) to provide advice and coaching to the business community, which can enhance collaborative efforts and awareness on AI. NCPs are helped by a large network of experts in various domains. Among others, NCPs disseminate information to potential candidates about European research programmes and share good practices with business actors.
Also the DigiCoach initiative reinforces this awareness thanks to inter alia events, media, articles and personalised recommendations to companies.
To increase cooperation among businesses, public administrations and citizens, the Flemish Government has set up the following initiatives:
- The Beacon initiative: an innovation community, bringing together tech companies, research, skills, innovation actors and citizens to collaborate on smart solutions for keeping the world liveable and sustainable. It focuses on the key AI & IoT innovation domains of smart city, mobility, logistics and industry;
- ICON projects: funding for interdisciplinary research projects involving the cooperation of one or more research organisations and at least three industrial partners from Flanders. This funding initiative is not specifically targeting AI-related projects, but has a broader perspective;
- Projects for Collective Research & Development and Collective Knowledge Dissemination (COOCK and TETRA): funding for research organisations focusing on AI-challenges that apply to a large group of companies, with the aim of accelerating the introduction of AI;
- The Imec.start programme: an initiative that supports start-ups to develop their business idea. Start-ups participating in this initiative receive financial support and are entitled to support. In addition, the Imec facilities are also available to start-ups, which can make intensive use of the network of partners and investors;
- VLAIO stimulates networking and thematic events about AI through a network of structural partners;
- A citizen science programme (called AMAI) has been set up. A dissemination campaign to stimulate citizens send in challenges (in the domains of mobility, climate, work and/or health) on what they see as important societal challenges in their life where AI could help. The intention is that these challenges will lead to the selection of 4 projects to be implemented in 2022 by consortia of research groups, SMEs and citizens. The total programme has a total cost of EUR 1 million spanning over 2 years of which the 4 projects take up EUR 300,000 (i.e. EUR 75,000 per project). The selected projects will start at beginning of 2022.
- The Digihubs: initiatives to coach and advise SMEs within their transition towards data-driven organisations and the introduction of new digital technologies (including AI);
The Walloon Region
Within the framework of Digital Wallonia, the Walloon Government has launched various policies to increase networking among public and private actors:
- Industry of the future programme: this initiative organised in a consortium promotes and supports manufacturing companies in their digital transformation towards Industry 4.0. The consortium brings together Walloon poles of excellence, sectoral federations, and research centres;
- The Digital Wallonia International project, which aims to increase the visibility and presence of the Walloon digital sector at international level. In collaboration with Wallonia Export-Investment Agency (AWEX), Digital Wallonia offers a programme of international missions and sets up a network of international hubs to support Walloon companies in their international development;
- Digital Wallonia Champions are ambassadors of the Digital Wallonia strategy. Their mission is to promote the digital transformation in Wallonia, and to disseminate the actions of Digital Wallonia. Launched in 2017, the programme has more than 200 champions at present.
The Brussels-Capital Region
Various policies have also been deployed in the Brussels Capital region to improve knowledge transfers and fully benefit from a network of relevant stakeholders in the field of AI:
- Hub.Brussels initiative: Hub.Brussels is the competent body in the Brussels Region for the provision of intelligence and business support, where Finance&Invest.brussels and Innoviris are responsible for financing innovative projects (including AI). The objective of this initiative is to put their network of experts at disposal of businesses to advice and support them in their start-up and development phase, including internationalisation. The AI companies supported so far were active in the healthcare and software sector;
- Icity.brussels initiative: funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and Innoviris and as a joint initiative of ULB, VUB and Sirris. It is devoted to strengthening Research and Innovation in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in Brussels. It has already launched R&D ICT projects in several key domains like education, e-Health, mobility, Internet of Things and 5G.
Finally, the Joint R&D project aims to foster collaboration between academia and industry. This programme is a reflection of the Brussels region approach to AI development, which puts a great emphasis on collaborative research and open innovation.
The Belgian AI strategy emphasises the need to ensure a reliable, safe and trustworthy AI development by establishing a legal and regulatory framework that encourages innovation while respecting the fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens.
With respect to regulation, the Belgian Government adopted a Royal decree on tests with automated vehicles In March 2018. It paves the way for the development of fully autonomous vehicles, as it allows the use of automated vehicles on the road for testing purposes and under restricted conditions.
The third pillar of the Flemish action plan, with a dedicated budget of EUR 5 million, is targeting support activities on awareness, training and ethics. This pillar includes among others the launch of the Knowledge Centre Data & Society, which focuses on the interplay between data, AI and society. The Centre enables socially responsible, ethical and legal implementations of AI in Flanders. It is funded by the Flemish Department on Economy, Science and Innovation and is managed by a consortium of three organisations: imec-SMIT (Vrije Universiteit Brussel), imec-MICT (Ghent University), the Centre for IT & IP Law (KU Leuven) and the Flemish Government.
The Walloon and Brussels-Capital Region
Policy makers of the Walloon and Brussels-Capital Region recognise the importance to develop AI applications in line with appropriate ethical and legal frameworks, and compliant with national and international laws. Policy efforts to create a regulatory ecosystem for AI are ongoing.
Data is an essential prerequisite for the use of AI. Hence, the Belgian AI strategy recognises the importance of facilitating access to data and making it available for citizens, businesses, public authorities and researchers.
At Federal level, following policies have been deployed to facilitate free access to data and to support data sharing and processing:
- The open data portal Data.gov.be provides access to 15,000 datasets across various categories such as education, energy, environment, health, transport and public sector. The portal also provides an overview of the tools available to support the processing and sharing of data;
- Statbel, the statistical institute of Belgium, provides free access to a hundred datasets, which can be used for commercial and non-commercial purposes.
To facilitate the access to high-quality data, the Flemish Government has set up the following initiatives:
- The Kruispuntbank.Vlaanderen programme to promote the Flemish Government data ecosystem. The objective of this programme is to make data accessible through APIs, to ensure high-quality standards, and data integrity;
- The Semantics@YourFingertips project, launched under the Innovative Public Procurement Programme (IPO), has the objective to effectively re-use the information contained in the decisions of the local authorities through linked data. The re-use of structured data for administrative and political purposes will be greatly simplified and will improve efficiency of operations;
- The LBLOD initiative aims at linking and making available local data and information (such as policy for parking lots in a city, opening hours of a public swimming pool etc.). The linked data complies with the OSLO standard (open standard for linking organisations - data.vlaanderen.be).
In addition, the steering group for Information and ICT policy approved in February 2020 the Flemish action plan Open data 2020-2024 to increase the availability and use of Flemish open data. The Flemish Government has also expressed its intention to create a Flemish data utility company that should act as a third thrusted party and can create vertical data sharing within industry sectors as well empower citizens with more ownership over their personal data.
The Walloon Region
In order to stimulate open data, the Walloon Government and the Wallonia-Brussels Federation (WBF) have launched the platform opendata.digitalwallonia.be. The ambition of this portal is to promote the access to data from public services at regional, provincial and municipal level in order to be re-used by other administrations, businesses and citizens.
The Brussels-Capital Region
The Brussels Government has launched several open data portals to promote data sharing and data analysis:
- The datastore.brussels platform, undertaken by the Brussels Regional Informatics Centre (BRIC), is the regional platform for opening up and sharing data and services in the Brussels-Capital Region;
- The opendata.brussels portal is the open data initiative of the City of Brussels;
- To improve the quality of health care, the Brusafe+ initiative allows sharing of patient data among health professionals while ensuring data protection of citizens;
- The platform analytics.bru ssels has been created to collect business-related data and to analyse the business ecosystem development in Brussels.
AI to address societal challenges
Climate and environment
The Belgian Ministers of Digital Agenda highlight in the AI4 Belgium policy report that AI is an important driver to support solutions for the climate change. AI should be considered as an ally against climate change. In this respect, AI needs to be developed and deployed so it can meet society’s needs and protect the environment by saving more energy than it expends. Several initiatives are ongoing or have been recently conducted in Belgium to take advantage of the untapped potential of AI in order to reach the ambitious climate targets. At the time being most of these initiatives are concentrated at local and regional level. To increase their impact, such initiatives could be scaled up at national level:
- The Smart Education @ Schools programme from the Flemish Government, coordinated by Imec and KU Leuven and promoting the use of smart educational technologies. One of the supported projects in this programme is the “Artificial intelligence, climate change, stomata project” (KIKS project). This project encompasses online courses directed to the secondary education in Flemish schools in which the benefits of AI techniques are explained to fight the current climate change;
- The Joint R&D Project: a funding programme launched by Innoviris which aims to foster collaboration between academia and the industry. In 2020, the theme of the programme is ‘The Industry of Tomorrow: Green, Human & Smart”. The programme contributes to enrich the Brussels Region-based industries with new modes of production: smarter (including AI) and more efficient, but also more respectful of the environment and its workers;
- At the end of 2020, the Flemish Government launched the Circular Manufacturing Initiative. Using a quadruple helix concept, an agenda will be developed to support the circularity of manufacturing. Digitisation and the use of data and AI will be a crucial lever for a greener production;
- “Energy-efficient AI systems” is one of the four main research themes in the Flanders AI Research Programme. Also Imec works on an integrated approach that combines innovations in data usage, hardware and software. Lastly, two use cases in the Flanders AI Research Programme for the energy sector focus on: (i) improving the prognostic health management and production of energy in wind turbine parks (ii) decision support for smart energy distribution in low voltage grids;
- The Brussels Smart City initiative highlights the environmental transition for a green and sustainable city among its main axes and identifies an important role for AI in this respect. This will be achieved by developing a solid data infrastructure and a smart grid network that could be exploited with AI tools, guaranteeing a smooth transition towards green IT;
- In March 2021, two universities located in Brussels (ULB and VUB) launched the FARI Institute - AI for Common Good. FARI is a unique structure that aims to bring together more than 300 researchers in AI and related disciplines, around projects that can benefit society. The institute will promote research on reliable and transparent AI. It will also aim to help the Brussels-Capital Region to tackle social and environmental challenges. FARI researchers will contribute to projects on transport, sustainable development, health services, citizen consultations on AI and algorithms. The projects will actively engage citizens and boost awareness about AI and its impacts in the region;
- The DigitalWallonia4.ai programmes stimulate and strengthen initiatives of Walloon companies in the field of the climate change, the circular economy, and the European Green Deal. In the future, the Start AI and Springboards programmes could be developed for specific sectoral themes to encourage companies to take steps in these areas. A good example includes for instance the selected proof of concepts of the Tremplin AI programme, in which the IA4GIS project proposes the use of AI technologies for satellite and aerial image analyses. Machine learning and deep learning tools are used to automatically detect changes and abnormalities in treated images, which can be helpful to observe environmental changes due to the climate change.
Several successful Belgian use-cases provide insightful examples on how AI-enhance robots and digital tools are used to combat COVID-19 outbreak. Only a selection is included below:
- Belgian hospitals and shops are employing robots that speak more than 53 languages, which are used to detect if people are having fever and to control whether they are wearing their face masks properly. These robots can for instance steer individuals with signs of fever to a separate area. This way, they have an important role in pre-screening the many visitors of hospitals during the pandemic;
- Belgian hospitals are participating in a collaborative project on Imaging COVID-19 AI. The objective of this project is to enhance computed tomography (CT) in the diagnosis of COVID-19 by using AI. The project team creates a deep learning model for automated detection and classification of COVID-19 on CT scans, and for assessing disease severity in patients by quantification of lung involvement;
- The Flemish foreign trade agency Flanders Invest & Trade mentions the use of AI by a Flemish company Robovision to analyse CT scans automatically in order to guide radiologists towards a faster diagnosis;
- IcoMetrix has developed IcoLung, with support of the Flemish AI Plan and European Funding (from the H2020 project icovid). This application is currently used by more than 800 hospitals in Europe on a daily basis to process CT images and to decrease the workload in clinical practice. It provides a fully automated assessment of the total and lobular disease burden by offering fast and objective quantification of lung pathology on chest CT scans in admitted COVID-19 patients;
- Single-cell transcriptomics data for COVID-19 patients was generated: a pipeline for scalable preprocessing of single-cell transcriptomics was implemented, and run on the Flemish Supercomputer infrastructure. This data is made publicly available within the framework of a CZI COVID-19 Atlas project;
- CrowdScan provides a wireless crowd density system that predicts size and density of large crowds to monitor the capacity in terms of humans per m²;
- A Global Data Sharing Initiative was built together with several researchers from the Flemish AI Research Programme to host the health data of Multiple Sclerosis (MS) patients from more than 80 countries. These data were collected and analysed to adjust the COVID-19 advice for people with MS based on data-driven insights. This medical advice is now available in 14 different languages across the globe.
Monitoring and future update
The Federal Government and competent entities at regional level will evaluate the national AI strategy on a regular basis and update it where needed.
Belgium (2019). AI4Belgium. Ministers for Digital Agenda. https://www.ai4belgium.be/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/report_en.pdf
1 Not to be confused with the AI Academy mentioned earlier.
2 The 2020 edition could not take place due to the sanitary restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.