A Flemish Data Utility Company: Flanders understands

Professor Stijn Viaene reflects on bold digital transformations, but also cautions for underestimating their complexity

Stijn Viaene

By Stijn Viaene

Professor of Digital Transformation

13 January 2022

At the end of November, the Flemish Government gave the green light for the Flemish Data Utility Company recovery project. This smart data interchange will make Flanders a pioneer in the European data hive mind and augurs well for a promising future. The draft decree and descriptions are online, and it will now be debated by the Flemish Parliament. The actual start date is planned for spring 2022.

The Flemish Government has opted for the Flemish Data Utility Company to be a public limited company (Naamloze Vennootschap met een publiekrechtelijke basis), as this is the structure that affords it maximum flexibility. The combination of a public contract with room for manoeuvre to build commercial activity is promising in terms of creating an interplay between politics and business management. It means that the Flemish Data Utility Company could become the largest IT company in Flanders.

Whether the framework set out in the draft decree will be sufficient to ensure the effectiveness of the Flemish Data Utility Company is currently hard to say. It’s best we wait for the memoranda of understanding with the Flemish Community and Flemish Region. And it's important to note that a project like this has never been done before. No fibre of Flanders' socioeconomic fabric will remain unturned by the work of the Flemish Data Utility Company. Everything is data, and data is everything. The introduction of the Flemish Data Utility Company will not go unnoticed in any case.

No less than Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the British father of the worldwide web, is supporting the Flemish Government as advisor. He advises other governments too. One of the crown jewels of the Flemish Data Utility Company is very close to his heart: a personal data safe for every citizen.

For some time already, Berners-Lee has been on a mission to save the internet. He wants people to regain control of their personal data, and is an advocate of a Copernican internet revolution that puts an end to internet companies’ obscure data monopolies. For this, he has created Solid, an open-source protocol added to the existing web standards. The aim of Solid is that technology saves personal data in a decentralised and secure way. Flanders will now work with Inrupt, the Boston growth company set up by Berners-Lee to promote Solid, for the delivery of its data safe service.

‘Flanders understands it. The government understands, and the companies understand’, says Berners-Lee, stroking our Flemish ego. The inventor of the worldwide web has fulfilled the dreams of the Flemish Government. Maybe this quote will make the history books too, just like the one from Julius Caesar about Belgians at that time. But first things first: the case for the Flemish Data Utility Company must be debated in the Flemish Parliament.

Flanders owes it to itself to have an ambitious plan for the future. That’s why we need bold digital transformations. Setting up the Flemish Data Utility Company could herald the start of a magnificent Flemish digital success story. But it could also be a huge disappointment. While the failure of digital transformations can never be traced back to one root cause, their success is generally compromised by one factor: underestimating complexity.

In a world of unprecedented turbulence, unprecedented opportunities and unprecedented dangers, we would not do ourselves any favours by being lulled into a false sense of security by a message which, as Berners-Lee confirms, we all already understand.

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Stijn Viaene

Stijn Viaene

Professor of Digital Transformation