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Learning and Connecting with Belgian Regions

September 1, 2016

This summer the Upstate SC Alliance joined a delegation visiting Belgium to explore how cultural connections can be leveraged into business relationships that enhance the Upstate’s global presence.

The trip was organized by Greenville Sister Cities International in an effort to strengthen the bond between the sister cities of Kortrijk, Belgium and Greenville, South Carolina. The Upstate SC Alliance joined representatives from Upstate colleges, economic development organizations, government and business. The group met with Belgian business and economic development groups, government officials and agencies, and visited innovative sites.

The visit was a strategic move to heighten global awareness and encourage region-to-region exchanges – both strategies encouraged by the Upstate SC Regional Export Plan, which launched in early 2015. To that end, we also capitalized on the chance to explore economic development opportunities in nearby Wallonia, the French-speaking region of southern Belgium. In both parts of Belgium, we opened doors for global engagement and identified similar characteristics around which relationships can grow, while observing models that can serve as examples for the Upstate.

There was already at least one strong connection: a host of a Rotary Club luncheon we attended was a Greenville native whose father had owned the iconic Duke Sandwich Company. Throughout the visit, we learned a great deal of detailed information, and have many follow-up conversations to pursue, and want to share some highlights: 

Kortrijk, Greenville’s Sister City
Kortrijk is a highly –urbanized western city of 279,000 inhabitants in the northern Flanders region of Belgium. The sister city relationship began in 1991, and past interactions have included student exchange programs through Furman University and exchanges between local garden clubs. The people in Kortrijk are Dutch-speaking, but business was our shared language during this visit, encouraged by  Mayor Vincent Van Quickenborne, who expressed a specific interest in hosting a delegation that would foster business relationships.

One of the strongest connections between our economies is that Kortrijk and Greenville share a strong textile history, and both are forging ahead with transitions to advanced manufacturing and advanced materials. At the same time, the cities can tap into each other’s differences. For instance, Greenville companies could tap Kortrijk’s industrial design talent as they plan for the future.

Regional Paradiplomacy
An important goal of the trip was to understand the regional nature of global engagement and soft landing support in Belgium. The Wallonia region acts like a national agency to support international investment and trade, partly through an extensive branding effort. Their formal brand ambassadors program includes economic and business attaches, tourism offices, and scientific liaison officers. They even have a blog where their ambassadors share experiences with each other – and the world.

Wallonia’s approach to soft landings also offered some interesting examples. A network of welcome offices is organized around competitiveness clusters and corporate networks: Aeronautics and Space, Agro-Industry, Life Sciences, Transport and Logistics, Mechanical Engineering, and Environmental Technologies. Each cluster has support pillars that include marketing, training, networking and other activities. As soft landing support is implemented in the Upstate, as suggested in the Upstate SC Regional Foreign Direct Investment Plan, the Wallonia model is a benchmark to inform our own efforts.

Three big takeaways

  1. Sister City relationships are gateways to economic opportunities. Defining shared economic interests is just as important as identifying unique areas of expertise that we don’t share. This is what spurs new thinking and drives business.  
  2. Shared R&D interests are ripe for development. Areas such as smart textiles or autonomous vehicles may lead to more opportunities for collaboration. University-to-university, accelerator-to-accelerator, and innovation ecosystem-to-innovation ecosystem partnerships are all on the table. For instance, the UpTex Cluster of Competitiveness in Northern France is already working with several companies that have Upstate branches or ties.
  3. A region’s “welcome mat” really matters. Wallonia’s North American/Clean Tech Welcome Center demonstrated the kind of hands-on attention that US companies can find when looking to expand abroad (check out the brochure). While the Upstate has successfully attracted international companies, we found in Wallonia an excellent example – and a resource for Upstate businesses eyeing expansion or exports to Europe. 

How You Can Engage
A starting point to explore expanding business to Belgium is the Wallonia Export – Investment Agency website. That agency is the key that opens the door to academic, scientific and industrial networks, offering information services, multilingual sector experts, and more.

Wallonia’s welcome office has a wealth of services, many of which are free of charge. They range from basics like language, visa and legal assistance, to scientific and economic incubators. There is also direct connection to the EU commission in Brussels.

Finally, you can begin to engage with Belgian cultures right here in the Upstate through Greenville Sister Cities International. Planning for a delegation from Kortrijk to Greenville is underway, which should present opportunities for the local business community to lay out our own welcome mat to our Belgian friends.

TOPICS: Upstate Thoughts, News You Can Use