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Initiating iBrussels

Date interview: March 24 2016
Name interviewer: Saskia Ruijsink
Name interviewee: Anonymous
Position interviewee: Operations manager of iMinds living lab

Social-technical relations Positive side-effects New Organizing Local/regional government Internal crisis Imitating ICT tools For-profit enterprises Evangelizing Connecting

This is a CTP of initiative: Living Labs ‐ Imec living labs (former iMinds Living Labs) (Belgium)

This critical turning point (CTP1) has a history that starts with iCity (an initiative in Hasselt, see related events), but the actual critical turning point is iBrussels.   iBrussels is an initiative that was developed at the level of the Brussels region (Brussels Hoofdstedelijk Gewest) and it was a program which was funded through the CIBG/BRIC (Centrum for Informatica van het Brussels Hoofdstedelijk Gewest).

The project aimed at providing the entire city of Brussels with (free) wireless internet. In 2008 Guy Vanhengel, the Brussels minister of finance who is responsible for ICT says in an interview: "We are the capital of Europe, internationally we have an enormous market potential, very big companies want to associate themselves with what is happening here. We need to play those master cards, also in everything that is about information and communication technology. One of the key elements is wireless” (, 2008).  

 In 2009 the iBrussels project was described as follows on a dedicated website: “Following the Governmental declaration of 2004, the Brussels Regional Informatics Centre (BRIC) was charged with the elaboration of a business case for low-cost pervasive wireless internet access in the whole Region. The business case for the iBrussels project highlighted and investigated different possibilities on the technical, legal and economic aspects of such a city-operated network. In a Proof of Concept, the campus of the VUB-ULB was covered in a meshed WiFi-network called UrbiZone, offering free internet to all students. At the demand of the BRIC, the VUB concentrated on the business modelling and use cases for such a network, and started up some Living Lab projects showcasing the possibilities of Mobile WiFi Access in the micro-cosmos of the campus area.” (, 2009). Even though the website is still online in April 2016 (the time of writing up this CTP file), the most recent news-item on this website dates back to July 2009.  

iBrussels did not roll-out (free) wireless internet (WiFi) everywhere in the city. It managed to develop the network at the campus of the VUB-ULB (Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Université Libre de Bruxelles/ Free University of Brussels), at the universities of applied science and in some parks. The pilot at the ULB/VUB was expanded as a separate project called UrbiZone, which now has 60 points of access throughout the Region (Bric.Brussels/en, 2016)  

Even if iBrussels has not been fully implemented it was very important for creating an environment in which the ICT focused iMinds living lab (that started off in 2007 under the name iLab.o) could manifest itself.  

The iBrussels initiative was also important with respect to its connection with the European Network of Living Labs (ENoLL). Back in 2006/7, ENoLL was an ad-hoc organisation closely linked to the European Commission and Brussels’ connection was important.  It was not until 2010 that the international not-for-profit foundation (an IVZW Internationale Vereniging Zonder Winstoogmerk) would get founded, but iMinds did earn its’ founders position in the Network due to its involvement in iBrussels. As such iCity and the Open Innovation Center Brussels (OICB) were admitted as ENoLL members since its inception. Later iCity and OICB were merged into by iLab.o, the predecessor of iMinds living lab. ENoLL is currently a membership network and living labs can apply for membership on a yearly basis, they then open ‘waves’ and applications of living labs that fulfil the ENoLL criteria are admitted to ENoLL.


The critical turning point is co-produced by a variety of actors coming from the public sector, the private sector and from research.The main actors include:

  • The Government of the Brussels region which comprises various layers including a) Political leaders and advisors of the Brussels region (bestuurders (politiek) stedelijk gewest Brussels) and b) Civil servants of the Brussels region.
    • The ‘purple’ government, a coalition of socialist (red) and (neo)liberals (blue) of the Brussels region made the provision of (free) WiFi its priority in its coalition agreement in 2004 (also see: related events).
    • The minister of Brussels (finance and ICT, Guy Vanhengel) is in charge of championing the iBrussels project. At this time, the interviewee works directly with the minister and as cabinet advisor ICT and this project is in his portfolio. They aim to develop this project in a PPP with national (Mobistar (nowadays this is Orange), BRT) and international (Microsoft, HP, Cisco) companies.
    • The civil servants play a critical role in the implementation of the project, their role involves contestation (for further details see: contestation).
  • Municipalities within the Brussels region; Belgium has three regions, Flanders, Wallonia and the Brussels region. The governments of all three regions are at the same level and they have ministers in their cabinets. Within the Brussels region there are 19 different municipalities that operate at ‘city level’ they have city councils and mayors.
    • The municipalities play a role in the implementation of the project, their role involves contestation (for further details see: contestation).
  • The European Commission
    • The commission plays a role in policy making and in the provision of European funds; also see related events
  • National companies in ICT infrastructure: IrisNet, operated by Mobistar, TNR, CityLife (a spin-off of the iCity project)
    • The ambition of and reason for engagement of the national companies was to sell WiFi
  • International ICT companies: Microsoft (N.B. only for the iCity project, not for iBrusseld), HP, Cisco.
    • Microsoft wanted to do marketing (in iCity)
    • HP wanted to sell its devices
    • Cisco was interested to connect its name to the brand name of the city of Brussels, in analogy with how the name of Cisco is connected to the Smart City Barcelona
  • An entrepreneur who thinks and works outside the box: Frank Bekkers
    • Frank Bekkers developed an idea: what location-based services can be offered if there is full access to WiFi, the iCity project in Hasselt
    • He shares his idea with the Flemish government and they promise to give him conditional financial support if he can find matching funding with private partners, which he does (with backing from Telenet and HP)
    • He believes that the iCity project should be ‘granny-proof’ and hence he engages citizens (1000+) in developing and testing
    • He has a vision: we need a location based services platform that will allow us to sell services and lock in the added value in local platforms
    • Based on the iCity experience and as spin-off of the iCity congress in 2007 he develops City-life and intends to sell this platform world-wide. That appears hard if you are not big enough but City-life is successful in Belgium.
    • He introduces Mobile Vikings, a very successful and socially innovative MVNO or Mobile Virtual Network Operator – he leased network capacity from Base (later acquired by KPN) to introduce new data-based subscriptions for mobile devices (smart phones/ tablets). 
    • Now he is involved in the City of Things in Antwerp (see: related events)
  • The VUB/ ULB (Free University of Brussels) including its visionary researcher: Prof. Pieter Ballon of the VUB/ ULB (Free University of Brussels)
    • The VUB/ ULB did a feasibility study for the iBrussels project (, 2008)
    • Prof. Pieter Ballon mainly co-produced at the European level, where he was among others project leader of the APOLLON project: Advanced Pilot of Living Labs Operating in Networks (see related events, also see his more explicit role in iMinds CTP2)
  • IBBT – (this is the Interdisciplinary Broadband Technology Institute/ Interdisciplinair Breedband Technologie Instituut, the predecessor of iMinds) is a partner in the iCity project that was important for the iBrussels project (see: related events). However IBBT is not at the radar of the interviewee in the period that iCity took off.

The City of Brussels was an important actor in iBrussels. There was political interest to develop (free) WiFi in the city. The support came from socialist politicians (free WiFi as basic right, see related events) as well as from neoliberal politicians who considered it interesting to invest in WiFi since they saw opportunities for companies to make money out of the network by developing business models. Additionally the City of Brussels had a financial inventive. They invested 10 years earlier in a PPP construction in a fiber network and they hoped to literally build on this network by adding antennas for WiFi. However, the government did not manage to make use and claim full control over the full potentials of this network because the companies engaged in the PPP managed to create a powerful position for themselves by interpreting the contract to their own advantage, leaving the city with a network that did not function.  

The minister Vanhengel said that iBrussels needed to be developed in a PPP in which everybody takes an equal share of the risks involved. He also believed that (i)Brussels should and could be a brand name that attracts partners like Cisco to the PPP. This in analogy with the Barcelona Smart City, if that name is mentioned, the name Cisco will follow shortly and that is obviously great publicity. But this form of co-production proofs to be hard, the companies do not want to take risk, they want to develop what the government orders (for more details see: contestation).    

In 2007 iCity congress in Hasselt showed the potential of WiFi and it motivated the city of Brussels for iBrussels (see related events). The congress attracted many high-level (international) people that are considered important players in the field and the presence of them in Hasselt, supported the idea that Brussels should also move forward towards iBrussels: they wanted to be part of the ‘iMovement’.  

In addition to the government, the important, remarkable and visionary Flemish entrepreneur Frank Bekkers plays a key role in this CTP. He describes himself as Chief Evangelist Officer, since he sees his ability to evangelize (create followers who believe in the future that he foresees) as his core competence. He is the motor behind the iCity project. He came with the idea and tried to convince the Flemish Government of its relevance. Their response was that he needed to collect 1 million Euro, if he would manage, then the government would complement the budget with an additional million Euro’s. He managed to do this and the iCity project took off. It was partnership between Flemish Government and private partners including Microsoft, Concentra Media, Telenet, Fujitsu Siemens and Research Campus Hasselt (, 2005).

Related events

This CTP is related to several preceding and evoked events. The overview below zooms in on the events related to iBrussels and hence it does not give a full overview of all the events that were relevant to iMinds living lab.

Flemish Developments

European / Global Developments

1994 Brussels develops a fiber networked that was leased by telecom providers

2004 Elections in Flanders in which coincides with the launch of iMinds (then named IBBT) on 22nd of April of 2004

2004 The predecessor of iMinds (IBBT) starts with the iCity project in Hasselt that aimed to provide free WiFi in the city.

2004 Elections in Flanders and Brussels: WiFi as a basic right

2007 iCity congress in Hasselt:

  1. City Life (Frank Bekkers)
  2. iBrussels  

2007 iLab.o is established

2009 Elections in Flanders and Brussels: continuous support of living labs in Flanders/ Flemish living labs

2009 The interviewee joins iLab.o 

2000’s EU aims to develop Europe as one market (like US and it states)/ stimulates cross-border business development

2004 WiFi in the city is ‘hot’, San Francisco as WiFi city. 

2006 1ts wave of ENoLL: iCity and OICB become member (later this is iLab.o)

2007 launch of iPhone

2009-2012 : EU project APOLLON/ European living labs

2010: ENoLL becomes iVZW based in Brussels (international not-for-profit association) and iMinds is one of its founding members

2015 City of Things in Antwerp: merging Flemish and European Ambitions

In 1994 Brussels develops a fiber network that was leased by telecom providers and this eventually motivated the government of Brussels region to invest in WiFi in 2004 (also see: contestation).

2000’s EU aims to develop Europe as one market (like the US and its states) and it stimulates cross-border business development; this is related to overcoming the European Paradox, which is explained as follows by Schuurman: “One of the imbalances that has received a significant amount of attention is the so-called ‘European Paradox’ or the gap between research leadership and the commercial success of innovation (European Commission, 1995; Dosi et al., 2006). Almirall and Wareham (2011) rephrased this ‘European Paradox’ in terms of Open Innovation concepts and stated that Europe scores high in terms of research (= exploration), but underperforms in terms of market success (= exploitation). In order to overcome this paradox, several initiatives were started at the European policy level, among which Living Labs (Bergvall-Kåreborn et al., 2009).” (Schuurman, 2015, p.13).

In 2004 WiFi in the city is ‘hot’, the interviewee indicates that San Francisco also aims to develop itself as WiFi city. (There it also never fully materialized as is explained in a blog posted in 2013 on the economist website:

In 2004 there were elections in Flanders this year coincides with the launch of iMinds (then named IBBT) on 22nd of April of 2004. The living lab approach can count on political support of the Flemish government.

In 2004 there also were elections for the Brussels region and the result was a government in Brussels that was dominantly socialist. In the coalition agreement of Brussels in 2004 they promoted WiFi in the city of Brussels and they framed it as a basic right for everybody.

In 2004 Frank Bekkers initiates the iCity project in Hasselt. Also the predecessor of iMinds (IBBT) is involved in the iCity project that aimed to provide free WiFi in the city (, 2016).

In 2006 ENoLL is established. iCity and the Open Innovation Center Brussels (OICB) were founding members and prof. Pieter Ballon is a board member since ENoLL’s inception. Later iCity and OICB were replaced by iLab.o, the predecessor of iMinds living lab, now iMinds is the ENoLL member.

In 2007 the iCity project in Hasselt organized a big congress that show-cased the findings of the project and that attracted an international crowd. The congress had thematic groups and discussed the potentials and challenges around location based services. An important spin-off of this congress was CityLife, today this is a company that exploits a digital loyalty card that is used by customers of retailers; one digital loyalty card (app) can be used in various shops. Frank Bekkers (see: co-production) was the evangelist behind this company.

In addition to CityLife, iBrussels was a spin-off of the congress. A delegation of the city of Brussels visited the event (including the interviewee as cabinet Advisor in the field of ICT) and based on the iCity achievements in Hasselt they were inspired to develop iBrussels. Since this also fitted very well in the cities ambitions that were laid out in the coalition agreement the congress supported the idea. iBrussels was developed as not-for-profit association (VzW) and they developed all kind of research and testing activities. In this endeavor they used devices that were very similar to the iPhone that was launched in 2007

In 2007 the OICB was re-branded to iLab.oIn 2008 the remnants of iCity were merged with IBBT. N.B., the IBBT is the predecessor of iMinds (the umbrella organisation of among others the current ‘iMinds living labs’). IBBT funded the Open Innovation Centre Brussels. The OICB operated institutionally within the larger structure of the SMIT (Studies Media Information Telecommunication) research group of the Free University of Brussels (VUB/ULB). iLab.o then also absorbs some of the  people that used to work to work for iCity.

In 2007 the iPhone was launched and this also marked an important moment in the shift towards mass adoption of smart phones. A critical external event for the development of ICT based innovations in general.

In 2009 there are elections in Flanders and this results in a government that continues supporting living labs in Flanders. Even though the major funding of 3 Flemish living labs (see iMinds CTP2 and 3) was already mobilized in 2008.

In March 2009 The Interviewee leaves the cabinet (government of Brussels region) and he joins iLab.o. During their CTP interviews Tim Rootsaerts and Dimitri Schuurman and this interviewee (see iMinds CTP 3-6)  addressed that he played a critical role in reorganizing iLab.o. He selected the best people from iCity and IBBT and he formed the team that is what is now known as iMinds Living Lab.

From 2009-2012 IBBT, by the person of prof. Pieter Ballon leads the EU project APOLLON: advanced pilots of living labs operating in networks. This helps IBBT to develop a strong European Network and to generate knowledge and academic credibility.

In 2010 ENoLL becomes an iVZW based in Brussels (international not-for-profit association) and iMinds is one of its founding members.

In 2015 iMinds is a main partner in the City of Things in Antwerp and in this project Flemish and European Ambitions are merged.


This CTP related to several forms and moments of contestation:

  • The consequences of and cooperation around the PPP in 1994 (a motivator for engaging in iBrussels)
  • The risk avoiding behavior of private partners in iBrussels
  • The tensions between political policy and the implementation role of civil servants with respect to iBrussels
  • The tensions between Brussels region and the City of Brussels with respect to iBrussels

One of the more opportunistic motivations to be interested in iBrussels came from the Brussels administration itself as the developed a fiber network in a PPP construction in 1994. They then leased this network to telecom providers for a period of 10 years. They invested in this network and they hoped to literally build on this network by adding antennas for WiFi. However, the Brussels regional government did not manage to make use of and claim full control over the full potentials of this network because the companies engaged in the PPP managed to create a powerful position for themselves by interpreting the contract to their own advantage, leaving the city with a network that did not function without their contribution.

Private companies were not interested to take and to share risks with the city. The interviewee explains this: “Cover part of the costs of rolling out the network by yourselves, try to share in the maintenance of the network, we want to develop a management structure with you and we allow you to offer commercial services on the network, so we can develop a kind of shared income model.” Eventually the companies just wanted to offer services that the city demanded and paid for.  The risk-avoidance can be explained by whom the negotiating partner is, at least for the international partners. The type and power of the delegates of those companies that are based in Brussels did not allow another form of collaboration. The country managers of Cisco, HP and Microsoft focus on sales and they are not the ones who will jointly develop new business models.  

The politicians want to develop iBrussels, but the civil servants actually did not support it. As the interviewee explains it: “It was interesting for them [civil servants] to own the fiber network, because this gave them power in their relation with the municipalities in Brussels. (..) But the idea to connect to citizens and then create a situation in which citizens could come to them and complain about WiFi, was not of interest to them.  It was a political idea that they did not support.” He further adds: In fact, there were two main power balances to consider: the balance between the municipalities and the Region. The City of Brussels (one of the 19 municipalities) had an informatics division which rivalled the one from the Region (BRIC). Strategic assets like a fibre network allowed the BRIC to gain the upper hand with those municipalities, hospitals and other public institutions. It also provided a relative independence from Proximus (Belgacom), which had a near-monopoly for telecom services in the Region. However, the administration wanted to keep as much control as possible on their network, and the cabinet’s proposed PPP construction with shared risk also implied shared governance. They also saw themselves as providing services to other public services, not to the citizens or tourists themselves. This resulted in a situation in which civil servants were very cooperative in the phase of feasibility studies but collaboration got more difficult in the implementation stage.  

Finally there was also contestation within the city administration of the Brussels Region. Within the Brussels region (same level of government as Flanders and Wallonia) there are 19 smaller municipalities that all have their own administration, one of those 19 municipalities is “Brussel-stad”, the City of Brussels, which is the part of the city that hosts the majority of the tourists. There are always tensions between Brussels region and “Brussel-stad”. As the Interviewee puts it: “If you are within the Brussels region, you will never mobilize the support from Brussel-stad. So, if we were to make WiFi-zones it was always outside Brussel-stad.” This fits with the power balance (and tensions) that were mentioned earlier as is further explained: the BRIC was able to build wifi on top of its IrisNet network clients, but since the City of Brussels was not a client they had no points of presence within that region. The city was reluctant to join the Irisnet network due to the implied strategic position of BRIC within that network.


The interviewee explains that the iBrussels was much highly ambitious at its start, but it could eventually not materialize all its ambitions. The initiative did not manage to roll-out WiFi everywhere in Brussels and some might consider that it failed. But he does not share this point of view. Throughout the development of iBrussels he understood it as being part of an important process that aimed to change the role that ICT plays in Flanders, for citizens and for entrepreneurs. However, it is only now that he can connect all the different dots and create the time line of related events. It started for him around 2004 when he followed the ideas of Frank Bekkers and iCity and the work of Pieter Ballon with interest  since it seemed important in relation to iBrussels, but the strategic importance of the initiatives of IBBT (predecessor of iMinds) in Flanders and ENoLL at European level were not yet on his radar.  

The realisation that the initial ambition of iBrussels would not be achieved came rather quickly, at least in 2008. This was also communicated as such as it was addressed in an interview with the Minister published at "“What restrains us to fully cover Brussels with WiFi? Budget, the business model, technology and juridical issues," says Guy Vanhengel. The Brussels region has an IT-budget of 40 million Euro per year. "Sometimes one wants to go too fast (..) We realised that technology has not yet been developed far enough. There is also a legal problem. Brussels cannot offer free WiFi since it would disturb the market (..). Europe is watching us. That is why we now focus on private places.” (..) When we approach 2009, the year of elections, Vanhengel aspires to have supplemented the amount of WiFi-antennas considerably, but covering Brussels fully, remains a dream.” (, 2008).    

Anticipation also played a role at a more personal level. The interviewee realised that it was hard to make change happen in Brussels. It was difficult to get external partners (private companies) really engaged in development and to share risk taking. Also it was hard internally. There were tensions between the political ambitions and the support for this by the civil servants, also there were tensions between the government of Brussels region and the municipality ‘City of Brussels’. Since he was advising the Brussels Minister, he knew he had to make a move in 2009, the year of the elections. His position was directly attached to the election of the minister. Even though the re-election of Guy Vanhengel was highly likely, it was uncertain whether the competence of ICT and informatics would land again in his portfolio. That was the main reason that the interviewee left just before the elections itself. By then, the Flemish Government had decided the merger of IBBT and iCity (see timeline of related events), which provided the opportunity that the interviewee needed to continue his efforts and for following his passion for ICT innovations and applications. As a consequence he decided to move to iLab.o and he started working for it in March 2009.


Throughout the interview it became clear that Frank Bekkers played a critical role and he symbolizes a number of important competences: Entrepreneurship, creativity and his ability to evangelize. Besides this there are important lessons directly addressed by the interviewee: When you are part of the government you can make policies, but you cannot force the implementation of those policies. There are challenges internally, within the government sphere since you rely heavily on the civil servants within an administration as well as on other levels of government. Additionally, you need support and commitment of external partners. If a government wants to share risks with private companies, its success depends also on the willingness of the private sector partners.

Think out of the box, but realize that in order to build something, you often have to stack existing boxes creatively. The interviewee always played the role of bringing new ideas back to some existing building blocks (boxes) that can be combined together to realise change. As such, he experienced that you can best achieve change if you can dream, if you have a vision and if you combine this with making it operational by breaking it down into small pieces and by realising that people like change, but also need stability: “One should continuously have big dreams, but one should be aware that they can be realised in small steps. (..) We should constantly question: What do we need today? Where do we want to go? This looks like it, and that looks like it. We will try to combine it and we will try something. And by doing that we try to offer stability. Yes, after two years of doing a project it is over, then you need to be able to offer stability.”

Additionally he addressed the need to create enough critical mass. He explained that Frank Bekkers experienced he could not have influence internationally with his City-Life company, because he was too small. But the same logic applies to the line of work that was set in motion among others with the iBrussels initiative and it directly relates to the current work of iMinds living lab (March 2016). You need a certain critical mass to believe and have interest in what you do, this also goes for the work of iMinds living labs. If there is enough interest it will keep on growing, whether you like it or not (and not everybody in iMinds living lab wants to grow). He explains it as the flywheel effect: “at first you need to push it really hard, but the more you push, the faster it starts to turn and at the moment you want to stop it, you cannot even stop it anymore, because it is the flywheel that is turning.”

He further adds that: “even if the flywheel is turning, if you experiment, you will keep on failing, which is part of the deal. But you can only be really successful if you manage to leverage what you have: you should always think in terms of value creation.” The interviewee stresses: “And if I may take the liberty: quantifiable value.” He explains that he experiences that in the field of social innovations it is particularly not done to express value in any form of quantifiable measure, he senses that there is a fear to do so. Such a measure can be money, but one can also use other measures. The basic idea is that if you use public money, or if you ask customers to pay for a service, you need to be able to explain what value you intend to create with the investment that you make. The value is about balancing on using, mobilising and creating resources since it does not make sense to continue non-value creating projects for too long.  Resources are not just about money, volunteers (who often play a critical role in social innovations) for example are resources as well.

The iMinds living labs have experimented and received subsidy, but eventually proofed to add value (even in financial terms); this has been demonstrated in an impact study (also see iMinds CTP5).



iBrussels on Slideshare, Logo iBrussels: accessed on 29th of April 2016 via

Schuurman, D. (2015) Bridging the gap between Open and User Innovation? Exploring the value of Living Labs as a means to structure user contribution and manage distributed innovation. Dissertation in order to obtain the title of Doctor in the Communication Sciences, Univeristy of Ghent. (2008) accessed on 29th of April 2016 via (2013) accessed on 29th of April 2016 via (2016) accessed on 29th of April 2016 via (2005) accessed on 29th of April 2016 via (2016) accessed on 24th of June 2016 via 

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