Citylab 2050: Towards smart city sustainability

At TM Forum Live! in Nice in May, Iris Gommers, Program Leader Sustainable City
City of Antwerp, will present a case study on Citylab2050, an urban laboratory for trying out new ideas and making the sustainable city a reality.

With 512,000 inhabitants, the city of Antwerp is the largest city in Flanders, the Flemish or Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. Flanders has 13 ‘central cities’, i.e. cities that perform a central function in diverse areas such as employment, healthcare, education, culture and recreation. Antwerp is known for its harbor and fashion and design industries. As one of the two metropolitan cities in Flanders, it is key to the move towards a more sustainable city.

The city has set concrete goals on energy, greenhouse gas emissions (20 percent reduction by 2020 and climate neutral by 2050), water and air quality. These targets and upcoming changes in demographics (strong rise in the population towards 2030) and economic development are forcing the city to innovate and experiment to anticipate the effects of these trends. The city strives to co-create its sustainable future with its citizens, knowledge institutions and companies.


To organize this cooperation and to facilitate the implementation of actions and experiments for a sustainable city, Citylab2050 (Stadslab2050) was created in 2013 – it’s an urban laboratory that helps to achieve the transition towards a sustainable city. This lab is a platform for setting up projects and experiments for and through the urban community (including businesses, knowledge institutions, NGOs etc.). It’s a space for learning how the transition towards a sustainable city can take place. Additionally, the government is experimenting with a new role, moving from initiating and conducting towards facilitating and setting up a framework in which projects and experiments can grow and learn.

Citylab is a pioneer for the transition program, to enable the city’s transformation into a sustainable city for everyone. Bottom-up initiatives will be stimulated, catalyzing breakthroughs and innovative solutions for the city. Citylab is also a meeting place, establishing cross-links between actors, and resulting in new initiatives, or facilitating the implementation of the measures that are agreed.

Reaching citizens

The specific target group of the lab is the whole of Antwerp society, although of course we acknowledge that it’s hard to reach everyone. Therefore, we have set up different thematic trajectories focusing on different target groups. The aim is to ensure a balance of different stakeholders from the quadruple helix. The expectation has been that mostly frontrunners and people with ideas, who feel committed to the future of the city, will visit the lab.


Because Citylab is being coordinated by the Department of Energy and Environment, a department of the city council, the issues on the agenda are related to energy and/or environmental challenges. Of course, sustainability-related challenges go beyond ecological issues – it’s about the socio-cultural, economic and spatial ones too. The focus of Citylab is creating actions and experiments to make the city more sustainable.

Some experiments are already ongoing around making the city greener, sustainable housing, circular fashion, reducing greenhouse gases from local businesses, sustainable food and the sharing economy. There are also new challenges around being a sustainable entrepreneur in the new city development, New South, and co-creating a climate-proof neighborhood in Sint-Andries.

For each ‘track’, specific organizations are approached to become a partner. The idea behind these partnerships is to create more ownership of Citylab and the initiatives coming out of it. It is also about making sure Citylab is not a city council initiative, but rather something that belongs to the people of Antwerp. We want to bring in more helping hands to help out logistically and get involved in working out concrete initiatives.

Crucial players are the people visiting the lab and participating in meetings and workshops organized around a specific thematic trajectory. They participate on a completely voluntary basis. This means that the project team often has to stimulate and enable people to take part or to attend meetings.

Each thematic trajectory has its own dynamics and associated approach. The speed at which things happen mainly depends on the group involved. How quickly ideas can be operationalized also depends on the type of actions and experiments that come out of the process. The design of the trajectory equally depends on the type of issue addressed as well as the challenges at stake.

What are the results of Citylab so far? Some are tangible, some less so:

  • The most tangible results are related to network links which have been established and further developed. Citylab has reached over 1,000 people who actively participated in its meeting spaces and more.
  • During workshops and meetings many ideas have been put forward. It is not always easy to move from ideation to implementation. The most important pre-requisites for success are: a strong ambassador who guides the idea; sufficient financing; capacity; legal permits; availability of physical space for the idea; timing; sufficient communication etc. Out of the many ideas, over 40 projects were initiated over the past three years. We estimate that more than half of those were successful, at least in the eyes of the ambassadors. An example of one of the projects is explained in this movie.
  • A lot less tangible is the change in policy, the impact of the inspiration and knowledge that has been spread, the new partnerships and networks that were built, and the creation of an ecosystem around the lab to create real change.

The core question remains: How can Citylab2050 maximize its impact in terms of making the city more sustainable in the coming years? How can it contribute in a significant way to the city’s transformation towards a sustainable city?

I’ll be discussing this further at TM Forum Live! in Nice in May. Join me.


About The Author

Program Leader Sustainable City, City of Antwerp

Program Leader Sustainable City for the City of Antwerp since 2010, before which Iris worked as a Neighbourhood Coordinator and for the Centre for Social Welfare. With a Masters in Public Management, and in Social and Cultural Agogics, Iris was born in Antwerp and has lived there ever since. With the overall objective being to encourage and support the citizens of Antwerp in building a sustainable future, the Sustainable City Team’s main topics are climate policy (mitigation and adaptation), air quality and noise. Iris’ team’s four assignments are: To prepare the city policies regarding the above four topics To advise other city services to implement sustainability in their projects and processes, especially regarding city development To initiate and actualize projects (e.g. Low Emission Zones, district heating) To collaborate with stakeholders

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