When Aline Muylaert and Wietse Van Ransbeeck were studying at university in Brussels together, it was their dream to start their own business. Little did they know it at the time, but their ambition would come to fruition a great deal sooner than either could ever have anticipated. Still in their early 20s, the two friends started the aforementioned business – an online, cloud-based platform – as soon as they left college and such is the impression they’ve already made that it can now be found on the 2018 edition of the famous ‘Forbes 30 under 30’ Europe list.
Every year, Forbes features young, talented people across a diverse list of categories. It is a highly prestigious accolade and which the financial magazine awards only to the most promising European innovators aged below 30. The reporters and editors of Forbes vetted thousands of nominations and polled expert judges to compile the list, and each person on the list has one thing in common: they are a leader in their field.
Two new names appear in the 2018 edition in the law and policy category - Brussels-born Aline and Wietse, amazingly, still just 24 years old. Along with web developer Koen Gremmelprez, they are founders of CitizenLab, a civic engagement platform on which, according to the young Brusseloise executives “co-creates their city.” The platform facilitates a two-way communication between a chosen city and its citizens. People can post ideas and solutions to an existing problem, discuss them with each other and vote on the best ideas.
Reimagining the democratic process
Through the application developed by Aline and Wietse, users can publish proposals and contribute to those already posted, flagging up civic issues of interest and concern to them. Last year alone, CitizenLab succeeded in bringing 15,000 citizens “closer” to their elected officials in this way.
Launched in 2015, in its first year, the CitizenLab initiative was recognised as one of the most promising small businesses at the Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona. The inclusion on the 2018 Forbes Top 30 list is further recognition for these two budding entrepreneurs, who are based in a “digital hub” above Brussels central train station.
Essentially, the aim of the business is about strengthening the democratic process, no bad thing at a time when the so-called “democratic deficit” has been blamed for alienating people from the EU and the subsequent rise of populist parties across Europe (most recently seen in the Italian national elections).
Effective democracy is not something you might necessarily associate with Belgium, either. Think back to 2010-11 when political parties spent 541 days negotiating a coalition, beating war-torn Iraq for the record of the longest time a country has gone without a government. But, as Wietse said, this is one of the issues that CitizenLab seeks to address. Acknowledgment by Forbes is, he says, a “great honour and shows once again that a growing democratic renewal is needed within our governments.”
Entrepreneurial spirit and drive in Belgium
Forbes selection is based not only on the candidates' abilities and potential, but primarily on their entrepreneurial spirit and the probability that they will bring about a change in the political landscape.
CitizenLab was founded by Aline and Wietse (now the CEO) when they were still studying, during their business engineering studies at Brussels Solvay Business School. The idea, says Aline, came from their personal experience of modern life in Belgium. “As citizens, we were feeling the need to have our voices heard by local officials, in an easy and transparent way”, she explains. Their first project was in Hasselt in April 2016 when the city government wanted to get citizens’ input into the renovation of the local Kapermolenpark.
Since its launch, CitizenLab has become a fast growing company and is now active in more than seven countries, the most recent being Denmark and Norway. Its 65 clients range from big cities like Vancouver, The Hague and Brussels, to small Belgian municipalities like Vilvoorde, Steenokkerzeel and Knokke-Heist.
Despite very high voter turnout (89% in the most recent elections), Belgium ranks below the European average in the UN’s E-Participation Index and below the OECD average for stakeholder engagement in developing regulations, a measure of civic engagement. Belgium came 35th in the latest Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index and scored lowest in Europe (5 out of 10) for political participation.
Belgian success stories and international expansion
But CitizenLab aims to change all that and two Belgian cities of varying sizes are good examples of how it has interacted positively with local authorities and citizens. In Lommel, a moderate sized Flemish city, the local council wanted to develop the area around the train station into a high-quality residential area. In collaboration with CitizenLab, Lommel’s city fathers informed local people about participation initiatives via social media (Twitter and Facebook) and newsletters. The city was swamped with responses from residents through CitizenLab and organized consultations on its plans with stakeholders and the project developers.
In Liège, meanwhile, CitizenLab was chosen to crowdsource its “City Plan”. More than 14% of Liège's population of 200,000 have since browsed the CitizenLab platform, with over 1,000 ideas proposed and more than 3,000 comments submitted. Thanks in no small part to the collaboration with CitizenLab, Liege citizens responded to the chance to participate online in discussions about their city’s future in “unprecedented” numbers with 95,000 casting a vote on the City Plan.
Jean-Christophe Peterkenne, strategy director for the scheme, said, “We have been pioneers in citizen participation, but this time we really wanted to accelerate and change the paradigm. CitizenLab will allow us to see broader tendencies take shape.”
A concern frequently expressed by local governments is that some users could take advantage of the platform to make negative comments but the Liège platform manager only had to ask users to moderate their posts five times out of more than 1,000 ideas that were posted, that is, in less than 0.5% of cases.
Looking back, Wietse admits to being surprised at how far he and Aline have come in such a short space of time. They now have a 12-strong workforce, and it’s gaining an international reputation.
He said, “It was our intention to start a business, but we couldn’t have imagined it would move so rapidly. We are now operational in lots of countries, not just Belgium. But it doesn’t matter if you are Belgian, Portuguese or Danish, citizens all over the world still face the same issues and challenges when it comes to what you might call democratic participation. This is badly lacking in many countries, including Belgium and that’s why we are trying to energise citizens to get involved.”
Wietse himself comes from an entrepreneurial background – his parents were self employed – and accepts that, unlike a lot of start-ups, the financing of theirs was relatively “smooth.” Looking to the future, he says the Forbes accolade gives CitizenLab the “all important” added credibility and will help pave the way for it to put its plans for further expansion into practice.
Growing up in Brussels, he recalls, “I was keen on trying to change things in the city but could never find an adequate way of communicating with the local authorities here. We launched this business to change that.”
The 2018 Forbes billionaire list has just been released (the Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, has seized the top spot). The two Belgian entrepreneurs are not there yet but, who knows how long it will be before they are among the 50 richest people in the world!
By Martin Banks