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Flanders’ Blue Cluster is turning the tide for the blue economy

Generating approximately EUR 658 billion in annual turnover, economic activities linked to the sea are riding the wave of success in Europe. But with great strength comes great responsibility: like every major sector, the blue economy has a key part to play in building a more sustainable world. That’s where the Blue Cluster, one of Flanders’ spearhead clusters, comes in. “Flanders’ North Sea coast is an ideal real-life laboratory to test new technologies and business models for a sustainable yet profitable blue economy,” says community manager Ann Overmeire.

​After its creation in January 2019, it didn’t take the Blue Cluster long to achieve its first successes in forging partnerships between companies, public institutions and centers of excellence. Their mission? To develop and promote sustainable economic activities related to the sea. The Blue Cluster is taking a so-called ‘ecosystem approach’ by putting the cohesion between ecology and economy first in everything it does.

The Blue Cluster’s ‘Yes, together we can’ attitude

“Together, we can:

  • protect coasts against erosion and flooding – by integrating nature-based protective solutions that make responsible use of non-renewable sand and mineral resources.
  • produce and store renewable offshore energy more effectively – by developing technologies for wind turbines, wave and tidal energy, floating solar parks and so on (while connecting all of this to energy storage and fresh water production).
  • make waterborne transport cleaner and smarter – to make our waterways and port areas cleaner, safer and more accessible.
  • develop sustainable seafood production – by introducing new technologies and business models for the fishery and aquaculture industries.
  • turn the coast into an eco-friendly tourist destination – one that puts emphasis on experience and knowledge sharing.
  • reduce the amount of waste in our oceans – by developing plastics removal technologies and by safely handling the many ammunition dumps in our seas.”

Co-creating a ripple effect

“With a length of around 67 kilometers, Flanders’ coast is relatively small,” Ann points out. “This encourages companies and knowledge institutes to work together in a multidisciplinary way. To give an example, Flanders has played a role in the development of offshore wind energy technology from square one. One of the world’s first large-scale offshore wind turbine parks was built here. For a large part, we owe this pioneering role to the rich connections between knowledge and business here.”

“It goes without saying that Blue Cluster members continue to co-innovate in the field of renewable energy,” Ann adds, “but they also focus on domains such as coastal protection, fresh water production, maritime and inland transport connections, durable marine biomass production, ocean pollution and waste solutions, and blue tourism.”

“What’s more, we strongly believe that each domain has the power to create a ripple effect and boost innovative results in other domains. Take marine production. Introducing new business models for aquaculture in offshore wind parks not only helps combine multiple activities in the same location, it also has the potential to cut pollution – mussels, oysters and clams, for example, can act as natural water filters. The resulting products, in turn, could strengthen coastal tourism by adding a sustainable ingredient to the local menu, while providing a sustainable feedstock for the chemical and pharmaceutical industries.”

Each of our innovation domains has the power to create a ripple effect and boost innovative projects in other domains.

Ann Overmeire
Community manager, Blue Cluster

Bringing the digital wave to the sea

Within months of its founding, the Blue Cluster successfully launched and received approval for 10 collaborative projects. Various industry leaders – some of which are Flanders-based branches of multinationals – promising start-ups and scientific institutes soon pledged to put their shoulders to the wheel. Ann: “Our members have a broad variety of specializations, ranging from seafood production, construction and dredging to renewable energy, monitoring systems, autonomous vessels and so on.”

“This cross-pollination harnesses a lot of potential for our ‘smart sea’ concept, which means: applying the Industry 4.0 mindset to benefit the blue economy. It’s no secret that sea-related activities are quite expensive. Not only do you need to invest in watercraft, safety equipment and a highly skilled crew, moving across the sea and having to wait for safe weather conditions can also take up a lot of time. By focusing on digitalization and enabling distant monitoring, our cluster members can optimize these processes and reduce costs. When applied to wind turbine parks, for example, this approach could lead to applications for predictive maintenance.”

Various industry leaders – some of which are Flanders-based branches of multinationals – and promising start-ups put their shoulders to the wheel.

Ann Overmeire
Community manager, Blue Cluster

Business and academics both run the ship

Clearly, the world is your oyster when bright minds think alike. But working in unison doesn’t happen overnight. Ann: “To make sure that new and existing members are on the same page, we organize up to three major networking events per year. In between these larger events, we also set up taskforces for all our domains, where member companies and partner organizations get the chance to brainstorm on specific themes and topics, such as clean shipping.”

“Afterwards, the brainstorm results are crystalized into concrete roadmaps,” Ann continues. “With the help of our innovation managers, members can turn ideas that respond to these roadmaps into collaborative innovation projects, which are eligible for support by government agency Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship.”

“In setting up a collaboration framework for the Blue Cluster, we also learned a lot from the monthly inter-cluster meetings organized by Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship,” Ann continues. “We decided to establish a scientific advisory board with representatives from all of Flanders’ universities, strategic research centers, and marine and maritime knowledge institutes. These experts evaluate potential projects and share their opinions and recommendations with our steering committee, which mainly consists of company representatives. In other words, science provides the necessary guidance, while the world of business makes the final cut.”

At the Blue Cluster, science provides the necessary guidance, while the world of business makes the final cut.

Ann Overmeire
Community manager, Blue Cluster

Maritime research center in Ostend

Local expertise in international waters

When it comes to the future, the Blue Cluster gets the wind in its sails. Various ambitious projects are now in full swing. One of these projects is Sweet H2(O), which aims to develop an integrated concept for seawater desalination. Another example is DataBeach, a project tackling new measuring technology and machine-learning models for more efficient coastal protection. Meanwhile, the goal of the MPVAqua project is to conduct research on floating solar technology for offshore electricity production in a rough marine environment.

“The federal government has also just finished the renewal of the marine spatial plan for the Belgian North Sea, which will come into effect in early 2020,” Ann adds. “Through intense collaboration, we managed to determine various multifunctional projects zones where Blue Cluster members can work on innovative commercial projects in domains as varied as aquaculture, energy storage, sustainable recreational opportunities and much, much more.”

“Furthermore,” Ann wraps up, “with the support of government agency Flanders Investment & Trade, we are working hard to put our members’ unique expertise on the international map. In the months to come, we will be setting up partnerships with US companies in the areas of offshore wind energy and coastal protection. Meanwhile, one of our cluster’s members has recently been involved in kick-starting a similar blue cluster in Australia, and we’ll soon be traveling there as part of an economic mission to see how we can strengthen one another and work together more tightly. The blue economy ship has clearly sailed into international waters – and we’re on it!”

More info

Blue Cluster
10 September 2019

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