The Flemish ports of Antwerp, Ghent, Zeebrugge and Oostende are of major importance for the Flemish economy. They boast an important direct and indirect activity: maritime traffic, storage, distribution, value added logistics, hinterland connections and several industrial clusters (such as steel, automotive, agro bulk, paper, energy and chemicals). Each of these activities is a source of employment and added value. Whereas in the last decennium the maritime traffic in the Flemish ports continued to rise, employment in the Flemish ports as a whole stagnated: employment in the industrial cluster declined, but expanded in the maritime-logistics cluster.
Right away, the question arises as to wether the emerging bio-based economy in our ports can help to reverse this trend. At this time there are already several bio-based enterprises active in the ports of Ghent, Antwerp and Oostende (with the exception of bio-based enterprises of the health and pharmaceutical industry). However, the impact on employment is still relatively modest.
Although there are still many uncertainties, the attractiveness of the Flemish ports in general and the bio-based economy in particular is quite impressive: a lot of new areas dedicated to the bio-based economy, excellent knowledge centres, the development of technical and non-technical innovations, several incubators and pilot plants to close the gap between scientific feasibility and industrial applications, the step-for-step integration of the bio-based economy in the (petro)chemical, energy, paper and agro bulk cluster, a high qualified and productive workforce, port authorities acting as matchmakers between all parties involved, the development of strategic links between global and local bio-based activities, and last but not least the development of high value port and bio-based related services with the potential for revitalizing both port related and urban employment growth (engineering, research and development, training and education, legal services, financial services, ICT, insurance and risk management, tax advice, certification of sustainable bio-based processes and materials, headquarter functions…).
In this respect it is clear that the development of the bio-based economy in our ports can help to restore the port-city relationships (via the knowledge centres, embeddedness in the regional innovative culture, high value port and bio-based related services, presence of highly skilled talent, better availability of seed and venture capital, collaboration possibilities in the field of co-sitting, exchange of residual products, waste and energy management)… but the question is wether that will be enough to realise a sustainable transition from cities with a port to real port cities.
Toon Colpaert (02.09.1949) is the regional port commissioner of the Flemish government (in case the Minister of Mobility and Public Works). He holds a MSc in economics of Ghent University and lives in the centre of Bruges (near the Spinolarei). Most of his interests include port regulation, port governance, ports and employment, ports as hybrid or shared value organizations, and the hinterland connections of ports.