ICT powerhouse codes the digital futures of Flanders’ biggest cities


Formed from the merger of Ghent and Antwerp’s city ICT departments, Digipolis works to make technology more accessible to everyone

Two in one

For more than a decade, the ICT departments of the cities of Ghent and Antwerp have worked together under the umbrella name Digipolis to better respond to common digital challenges such as e-governance.

The two branches exchange experiences, discuss solutions and collaborate intensively on staffing and purchasing policy, but they also adapt their own strategies to the specific needs of their respective cities. Digipolis supports the local police departments, for example, by running the CCTV systems, but it also sets up projects to boost digital participation.

In Ghent, members of the team focus on making digital products and applications accessible to everyone through the Digitaal.Talent@Gent initiative. “We fight the divide between people who have the necessary knowledge of and access to digital technology and those who don’t,” says Johan Van der Bauwhede, the director of Digipolis’ branch in Ghent.

This year, Van der Bauwhede’s team hosts the Telecentre Europe Annual Conference (TEAC16), a meeting of 150 representatives from digital inclusion organisations in 30 countries. The focus is on e-inclusion strategies, revolving around the central theme of Digital Skills for Future Jobs.

Societal e-inclusion

Federal minister of the digital agenda, Alexander De Croo, is among the confirmed keynote speakers. He will be joined by another influential Fleming: Saskia Van Uffelen, the CEO of the telecommunication company Ericsson Belux.

As its name implies, the conference will also focus on the evolution of telecentres – public spaces that offer free access to computers and wi-fi, and are often staffed by volunteers who can assist people with digital issues.

We fight the divide between people who have the necessary knowledge of and access to digital technology and those who don’t

- Johan Van der Bauwhede of Digipolis

Digipolis has 75 telecentres in Ghent, which it calls Digital Talent Points. They play an important role in combatting the digital divide by being accessible to people from all social backgrounds.

At the conference, the team behind Digitaal.Talent@Gent will also present its new project, Digikriebels, which consists of a series of four lessons where pre-school children play educational games with their parents or grandparents.

Along with supporting pre-schoolers in their transition to primary school, Digikriebels also boosts parents’ and grandparents’ confidence and reinforces the relationship between home and school.

Through its Onbeperkt Mediawijs (Unlimited Media Literate) project, Digipolis helps people with mental disabilities become more digitally active by teaching them how to use computers, social media and other ICT devices. The project aims to boost their independence and aid in self-development. It is organised in co-operation with the non-profit organisation Vonx, which provides learning opportunities and activities to the mentally challenged.

Hands-on approach

In the project Code Your Future, underprivileged children and teenagers learn how to code and play their own video games, which teaches them valuable coding skills doing something they like. For this project, Digipolis is joined by non-profits Fyxxi and Mediaraven.

The flagship project for Digipolis Ghent is the implementation of the digital policy for the city’s new public library, De Krook. The library, expected to open early next year, will offer so-called makerspaces, or communal areas that let the public experiment with various kinds of media.

Visitors to the new library will be able to create websites or content for YouTube

- Johan Van der Bauwhede

“Visitors will be able to make websites or create content for radio, TV and YouTube,” says Van der Bauwhede.

Those attending TEAC16 will also take part in a tour of the Digital Interactive Fair, which showcases innovative start-ups and lets the visitors test out new technologies, like drones, virtual reality and 3D printing. It also includes workshops and hands-on demonstrations for people of all ages.

The fair forms the start of the annual Digital Week, organised by Digipolis in various parts of the city. On the programme are lessons, workshops and demonstrations for both ICT novices and advanced digital learners.

Participants of the week-long initiative will be able to learn how to use Microsoft Office or how to install specific programmes, but there will also be more advanced courses on 3D printing, virtual reality and more. While most of the activities are free, some have a very democratic fee.

Meanwhile, in Antwerp, the local branch of Digipolis is working on the City of Things project, which aims to turn the city into a testing ground to examine how the Internet of Things – the idea that everyday objects can be made to communicate across digital networks – can improve the daily lives of residents. Among innovations being tested are traffic management systems and public waste bins that send out a signal when they need to be emptied. 

TEAC16, 6-8 October, NH Gent Belfort hotel, Hoogpoort 63, Ghent

Digital Week Gent, 8-16 October