On 1 October 2020, the Flemish Knowledge Centre for Water (Vlakwa) celebrated its 10th anniversary. The perfect opportunity to give the organisation a new look with a revamped website and a redesigned logo. And to look back at the many waters that Vlakwa has swum through.

Several extreme droughts in recent years have made us face the facts: Flanders is particularly vulnerable when it comes to its water resources. Imminent water shortages not only have an impact on citizens (via irrigation restrictions) and farmers (hose pipe bans) but also on businesses. As a result, more and more sectors, companies, organisations and governments are focusing on robust water management, which should prompt them to move towards a circular water economy. Over the past ten years, they have been able to count on the extensive expertise of the Flemish Knowledge Centre for Water (Vlakwa), which has been a fully-integrated part of VITO since 2016. 

Neutral, independent role 

It typifies Vlakwa's economic and innovative drive, which has remained unchanged since its inception in 2010. 'From the outset, we have been bringing together parties with water-related problems with "problem solvers", usually knowledge organisations such as the two West Flemish colleges of higher education that were at the inauguration of Vlakwa together with agricultural and business organisations from this province,' explains Charlotte Boeckaert van Vlakwa. The solution came (and still comes) mostly in the form of demonstration projects, more than twenty of which have been completed in the last ten years. 'Subscription to these projects is usually via open calls, after which companies and organisations can receive support to test an innovation for one year. Vlakwa always plays its neutral, independent role in this regard'. 

Vlakwa attaches great importance to the system focus it uses. 'This implementation of the action line is based on three questions we ask ourselves,' explains Dirk Halet van Vlakwa. 'What are the root causes of the water problem, how can innovation provide a solution, and how can successful demonstration projects be scaled up and made ready for entrepreneurs to work with?' In the roll-out of this action line, Vlakwa can count on the support of the Flemish Transition Platform within VITO. 

Finger on the pulse of the business world 

Vlakwa's economic approach naturally requires the organisation to keep a strong finger on the pulse of the water-related problems in the Flemish business world. 'In 2013 we produced a large-scale, detailed overview of the socio-economic importance of water in Flanders', says Halet. 'This gave us a good picture of the water-sensitive sectors and the added value they create, and how they are threatened by flooding or drought'. The needs and concerns of companies are also continuously monitored, including through close consultation. 'We keep a close eye on what is going on in the Flemish business world. We base our activities on this: by focusing on projects that meet the needs and concerns of the companies, we immediately become more involved. And we have also recently started working with the Flemish spearhead clusters, which set out the lines for innovation in Flanders. That way, we ensure that our priorities match'. 

In addition, Vlakwa has a sounding board group in which various organisations from the research world, the government and the business world (including various drinking water companies active in Flanders) are represented. Halet: ‘The sounding board group not only keeps us up to date, but is also important for our neutral position in the Flemish water landscape. And we can see that this advisory council is also an important asset in our international operations'. According to Bart Naeyaert, West Flemish delegate and chair of the sounding board group, this body helps to guarantee the middle position between government, research and entrepreneurs. 'This middle position is important in order to be able to act with sufficient freedom for and between the various actors without having to implement the agenda of one of the actors alone. Also within the structure of VITO, we will continue to represent the relevant research organisations, entrepreneurial organisations, representatives of water companies and governments', explains Naeyaert. 

Low-threshold and approachable image 

Another important milestone in the past ten years was the roll-out of the Low Threshold Expertise and Service Centre (LED) for Water. 'SMEs can contact it for free first-line advice on solutions to their water problems and questions,' says Veerle Depuydt van Vlakwa. 'This ranges from the choice of water sources over new technologies for process water to purification and water management'. But of course, a low-threshold and approachable image cannot be achieved overnight. 'We have gradually built this up by networking and communicating clearly. Our personal approach has also contributed in this regard'. 

Sometimes companies also point out new bottlenecks. Depuydt: 'A scrap metal processor, for example, came up with the question of what to do with run-off rainwater. On this basis, we set up a targeted project with the whole sector. It is an example of need detection that is a consequence of our strong feeling with the business world'. 

In 2016, Vlakwa was 'incorporated' into VITO. 'This was a result of a rationalisation of the many Flemish innovation structures, in which companies were often unable to see the wood for the trees,' explains Clemens Mensink of VITO. 'The valuable ones - like Vlakwa - were retained but integrated into a larger structure. VITO was a logical partner for Vlakwa'. This does not prevent Vlakwa from continuing to play an independent role in the Flemish water landscape. We fulfil the same role, but now it is within the VITO structure', explains Depuydt.  Today, Mensink sees a clear synergy: 'In a short period of time, Vlakwa has brought a lot of international projects to Flanders for its partners, including some very interesting Horizon 2020 initiatives. That's quite an achievement for a team with six core members'. 

As such, Vlakwa is ready for the future. This is already happening today, with the Flemish economic recovery plan, among other things, to deal with the corona crisis. But above all in the context of the Blue Deal, which needs to prepare our region against water scarcity.

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