Plea for a Belgian manufacturing industry 4.0
The exponential power of a pandemic
Around 1340, a small marmot - a genus from the squirrel family - infected a number of rats with a virus in Central Asia. The starting point for the macabre journey that the Black Death would take through Asia and the rest of the world. The worst affected region in the East: Hubei Province. Once in Europe, up to a third of all inhabitants would die directly or indirectly from the plague 1.0, all in all about 25 to 50 million people. That is the exponential force of the pandemic: up to a quarter of the world's population was killed by a single marmot.
In 1340, the plague took between 7 and 10 years to spread “worldwide”. At the end of 2019, the corona pandemic took just a few weeks or months for that same trip. It started allegedly with a bat infecting a marsupial, snake or civet cat at a crowded market in Wuhan, a city of 11 million inhabitants in China's Hubei province. From there, the animal infected a few animal sheds, and so the region - 7 centuries after the plague - once again became the epicenter of a global pandemic which has been raging like an unstoppable tornado over the world ever since. The current toll: about 200,000 deaths.
Pandemics, like ourselves, are traveling faster than ever and are therefore growing more exponentially. The unbridled power of popular diseases shows on the one hand how enormously vulnerable our globalized world was and is, but on the other hand the “war against the invisible” also offers an incredible opportunity to join our human forces. As in the past, we can turn this global disaster into one of our greatest success stories.
New Perspectives of a New World
Sometimes the most unexpected miracles arise from the deadliest disasters. After the bubonic plague, our regions flourished in the 15th century, simultaneously with the Italian quattrocento. Not only did our economy perform particularly well, the arts flourished as well, with Jan Van Eyck as the most important figure. Not only was he the inventor of oil painting, but he was a pioneer in bringing perspective to his paintings - whether or not influenced by the Florentine architect, Brunelleschi, one of the fathers of the Renaissance. Van Eyck's paintings were the fusion of science and art and the beginning of naturalist, photographic art.
This renewed way of looking at things and looking for the right perspective is just as important for our future thinking. Suppose: a person is looking in 2D (from above or below) at a person spinning the stairs in the Guggenheim Museum in New York. To him or her, this person seems to be spinning in circles, just like certain sceptics see this technique and, by extension, human history as a repetition on the same theme. Of course, this is only partly so.
But someone else who sees the same person in perspective knows that the person is walking upstairs. Our Stairway to Wisdom resembles turning in circles forever and seemingly always doing the same thing, but it in fact describes an innovative path up. Layer by layer as in a 15th-century oil painting by Van Eyck or as in a 21st-century 3D product of Materialise. And the sky is the limit, because technology is spinning faster and faster. Until the year 2000, mankind produced about 5 exabytes of data. In 2010, we doubled that amount of data every 10 hours. Today, that doubling takes place within 2 minutes. Just like pandemics, our knowledge and technology are growing more and more exponential.
The discovery of the new perspective happened almost simultaneously with the discovery of the New World. Both were revolutionary explorations of the space at the time, albeit on a very different scale. A century after Van Eyck who put an interior room in perspective, Gerard Mercator projected that large outdoor room in which we have been living - the world - on a map. Five centuries after those two great Belgians, we as humanity explore new, unknown spaces with nanobots and intergalactic spacecrafts. By doing this, our Stairway to Wisdom leads our knowledge to unprecedented heights and our society to new dimensions.
500 years, hooray for the robot!
The world revived a century after the Black Death. City-states such as Florence flourished and just like in Flanders trade and arts flourished as well. The Venice of the North and the South were closely linked by busy trade routes, along which the ideas of Renaissance also traveled out of our regions, with cart loads full of books of rediscovered knowledge from Antiquity and the latest trends and insights from the sciences and arts.
Shortly after Van Eyck breathed his last breath in Bruges, Leonardo da Vinci saw the light of day in Florence. Da Vinci was a very versatile man, a real uomo universale, who was concerned with both the art of painting and the science of perspective. He did not take his first professional steps as an artist or scientist, but as a theater producer and inventor of machines for the many spectacles of the De Medici family. Based on machines that Brunelleschi used for his dome of the Duomo, Leonardo designed machines which let actors fly like angels.
He designed his first planes for the Renaissance theatre, although these machines were initially not intended to fly, just like the dreamy flying machines of Panamarenko, the Flemish artist-inventor. Leonardo's early creations such as his well-known airscrew - often regarded as the first helicopter - did not fly but were the impetus for his later aircraft designs that inspired many generations of dreamers-inventors.
Da Vinci is not only regarded as the inventor of the first aircraft, but also as the godfather of modern robot technology. Automatons were already known for almost 2000 years in his time, so he did not develop the first robot. But in 1495 he created the first robot to look like a human: a knight who could sit, stand and move with his arms and jaws. He also developed a series of robots that were way ahead of their time, including three moving lions for Francis I of France, for whom he spent the last 3 years of his life as a court artist and engineer at the castle of Amboise, where he is also buried.
Although automatons have existed for thousands of years, the word robot only came into play in 1920 when Czech theater author Karel Capek wrote the play R.U.R. or Rossum's Universal Robots. Robot is derived from the Czech word “robota” (boring work, labor or service) and a “robotnik” (farmer, serf or slave). In the comedy we see a successful company on an island where slavish robots do all the work. Throughout the play, the robots evolve, gain self-awareness and self-esteem, start to rebel against the people who use them, and eventually kill all of humanity except one worker to secure their reproduction. This piece stood at the cradle of science fiction, a new genre with which magazines such as Amazing Stories and authors such as Asimov scared the world.
A few centuries later, a Da Vinci robot performs complex surgery on people in renowned hospitals worldwide, hand in hand with humans. And perhaps the Da Vinci robot will ever operate us without any human manipulation.
Slave to the algorithm
Will Da Vinci's robots save humanity or allow technology to wipe out humans like in Asimov’s play? Who knows what we should believe in? Geert Janssens cites four possible scenarios in his book "Valuably unemployed". The first group thinks that everything stays the way it is. A second group says that we will learn for life. A third group fears a robot apocalypse in which all human work is stolen by robots. A final group proclaims the singularity, in which robots control everything including humanity.
Will it become business as usual, as in the first scenario? It for sure won’t, because currently too many AI systems and robots are already active and there will be many more tomorrow. In the industry, robots work in large numbers with humans or completely independently. Smartphones grow together with our hands and form a bionic arm with built-in personal AI assistant that captures our entire perspective on the world, in images and words.
Machine intelligence is becoming increasingly invisible and inevitable. Everywhere, objects have intelligence built in to enable them to communicate with us and each other. Distributed autonomous systems such as Bitcoin have more than 1,000 times the power of the world's 500 largest computers. So those ecosystems of small, interacting systems are more powerful than the largest mega server parks. The Internet of Things (and with it Big Brother) is no longer an utopia, but a reality.
Technology is sometimes invisible, but it is there and more than we realize. 50% of internet traffic is generated by bots and the majority of those bots have bad (human-programmed) intentions. In the financial world, crypto coins work peer-to-peer, separate from central banks. Self-driving cars are not yet on the market, but much of the technology is already present in newer models. In healthcare, robots are used as pets and as an operating tool. Drones are playing an increasingly important role in the military field. Big data, the Internet of Things, AI, ... the impact of new technologies is growing every day and creates ethical problems in all socio-economic areas.
Are we in danger of ending up in singularity like in scenario four? This will largely depend on whether we can resolve the associated ethical issues in time. Proactive ethics - in which technology is at the service of society - is crucial. We can learn a lot from historical mistakes humanity made in technological progress. Like in 1912 when the Titanic, which was called unsinkable, sank in a few hours due to human overconfidence. It was not only the last journey for 1522 passengers and crew, but also for blind faith in progress. If we prepare adequately and succeed in building ethical awareness into AI and robots, we can avoid the fourth scenario where we humans become robot slaves and continue our journeys to the immeasurably large and small.
If the first scenario no longer applies and the fourth hopefully remains science fiction, which option will become reality? The second proposition in which we as humans have to learn for a lifetime or the robot apocalypse? A mix of both seems more likely, in which humans learn and collaborate with robots in a highly automated and connected world. Robots that work in harmony and grow together or even become physically and mentally one.
What should we do with people who lose their jobs because of machines? Another job? Or an alternative society? A basic income? Everyone to healthcare? Everyone creative? Not only factory workers, but also notaries, accountants… everyone can lose their job through AI. On the other hand, we can become exponentially smarter and stronger as humans and as humanity.
We should not miss this historical opportunity. At present, people are central to the entire process, both within industry and within society. And that should remain the case if robotics and AI gain in importance. If we do nothing, singularity can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Anthropocentrism within Industrial Revolution 4.0 is becoming paramount, which is why we must act now. That may be one of the greatest challenges of our time.
Luddites or uomi digitali
No job seems safe for robots or AI. Once the disruption is final, it will cause enormous shocks. According to some skeptics, we are heading for an unprecedented socio-economic revolution, but history can teach them and us wise lessons.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the weaving machine caused a huge social turnaround and a great deal of unrest in England, the first industrial superpower. More and more workers saw the automated weaving machine as life-threatening and a threat to their jobs and united in the Luddites, a secret alliance named after Ned Ludd, a fictional person who allegedly destroyed two looms in 1779.
The workers decided to destroy the progress that meant their decline. They could count on some understanding here and there, like with poet and politician Lord Byron. The British government, on the other hand, regarded the destruction of machines as carnage, struck down all insurrection by military force and sentenced the troublemakers to deportation to penal island Australia or even to death. In the 60s and 70s of the 20th century such waves reappeared. And also, in the light of the imminent transition shock, we can expect such movements.
During the 19th century and 20th century, our society made a quantum leap thanks to water supply and electricity. Our 21st century will be the era of the intuitive intelligence. Once we have embraced this new reality, our society and most of the people will undoubtedly progress through technology. The key question is: will we behave like 21st century, conservative Luddites or will we become uomi digitali and we say a resounding yes to the robot future?
Belgium, the smartest hub on earth
Flanders and Belgium have a particularly rich tradition of industry and technological innovation. Thanks to excellent spinning and weaving techniques we excelled in cloth production and our medieval towns flourished through international trade in the 13th and 14th centuries. Our region experienced accelerated urbanization, centralizing knowledge and capital. Supported by an innovative agriculture and commercialization of the economy, an unprecedented export industry of Flemish cloth was born all over Europe and far beyond.
Around 1450, the old cloth industry seemed to have almost completely disappeared from the cities. Bruges had become a gathering place for international merchants, mainly producing more expensive fabrics such as linen and lace. The coarser textile industry had moved to the countryside, where people innovated with the production of the lighter, duller fabrics. This was done in the first protoindustrial units, production units which were bigger than the traditional craft workshops and moreover free of all the strict rules of the crafts.
At the same time, the van der Beurse family in Bruges set up the first stock exchange in the world, a building where traders from all over Europe could view merchandise and also conclude official transactions. In this context of international wholesale and flourishing industry, Van Eyck painted his masterpieces for the new rich of the time.
However, the religious wars of the 16th century put an end to the strong flourishing of our textile industry and our society. While the Netherlands experienced its Golden Age, our regions were torn apart and limited in their growth by successive occupations of Spaniards, Austrians, French and Dutch. At the end of the 18th century, Flemish and Walloon entrepreneurs smuggled English technology to the mainland and the industrial revolution cautiously set foot ashore in Liège, Verviers and Ghent.
After the battle of Waterloo, our territories, the Southern Netherlands, became part of the Northern Netherlands. But it didn't even take 15 years before we separated again and became Belgium. Our new state became a sanctuary for new ideas in every field and also helped to speed up the introduction of that innovation. Thanks to the mix of an ultra-liberal market and a government that supported progress, Belgium developed into one of the most modern states in the world, progressive, lawful, about transport to industry. In this way we became one of the strongest industrial powers of the time, together with great powers such as England and Germany.
Our country flourished as never before and was a leader in many areas. Heavy industries such as steel and coal were among the best of their time. Belgian entrepreneurs developed into world leaders in rail and tram construction and built, among other things, the Paris metro and trams in Egypt. We were also a country of inventors and innovators. The electric train and tram were invented by the Flemish-American Edison, Charles Van Depoele. Bakelite, invented by Leo Baekeland, who emigrated from Ghent to America, was the very first synthetic plastic and formed the basis for the modern plastics industry. Ernest Solvay developed a way of making soda ash on an industrial scale, which could be used to make glass, soap, paper, iron and many other products. The beginning of a thriving chemical industry in Belgium which is still firmly rooted in our country today.
(A few more of our inventions: the big bang theory, asphalt, the contraceptive pill, BMI, the duffel coat, the saxophone, statistics, the cassette, the electric doorbell, the euro, the frisco, chocolates, sweets, the robotic mower, the roller skate, the (steam)car, the combustion engine, the parking sensor, the hypertext, the night vision goggles, the mercator projection, the forceps.)
Plea for a Belgian manufacturing industry 4.0
We live in a country twice as special, with at least two populations, each with their own mentality. It's the kind of diversity that makes us interesting. It's not for nothing that we are the land of baroque masters and surrealist art, where something that seems impossible becomes possible. A unique mixture of work ethic and festivities, of creativity and entrepreneurship, of centuries of knowledge and innovative mastery. In recent decades, our industrial society has changed into a more knowledge- and service-oriented society with a rather limited role for industry.
The current corona crisis shows how vital it is to have a manufacturing industry on our own soil. After all, our globalized world has more than one downside. We are particularly dependent on foreign markets for essential products, such as medicines and protective clothing. Core technology such as 5G is essential for a future full of self-driving cars and other communicating machines. As almost all this technology is made abroad, we risk not only catching up on innovation, but actually losing many jobs and businesses.
Converging industries and new technologies will undoubtedly cost a lot of jobs. But the current crises and associated changes also give us the opportunity to maximize our commitment to innovative and pioneering business. We have all it takes to help shape our future, just as our chemists and tram builders did in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Are we continuing after corona to develop a globalization model based on institutional harmonization and convergence or do we opt to evolve towards a model of institutional diversity and heterogeneity? Or else: are we opting for a sub optimized globalized world in which we become mostly dependent on other regions. Or do we choose for a “new globalization”, a “glocalization” of diversity and heterogeneity and invest our local know-how and resources in new high-tech industries that are conquering the world themselves? The choice is up to us.
The scale of our country does not have to be an obstacle, on the contrary. It wasn't then, and it doesn't have to be today. We have a unique history, a huge number of educated people, innovative companies, strong and close networks, governments that want to stimulate entrepreneurship, citizens with a lot of funds and companies who want to move forward. Of course, we need to become aware of our "natural" resources and use them intelligently and strategically and let them interact with each other in an optimal way. Each party must take responsibility for joint success.
To the governments of our country
Politicians are captains who can steer our society in the right direction with the right long-term vision, courage and healthy common sense. If they don't, they can make us sink. Although we have been free of war for more than 70 years, a number of things threaten to hamper the success of business.
In recent years, our uncertain and unclear political situation has increasingly put us at a disadvantage, demotivating foreign investors and scaring off domestic investors to other regions. Moreover, we still have a schizophrenic balance between government support and incentives versus an excess of taxes and rules, causing our entrepreneurs on the one hand hoping and gasping for oxygen but on the other hand being stifled and choked by regulations.
If we look at the beginning of the 19th century, we see how the free entrepreneurial climate opened up our economy during the first industrial revolution. Of course, we will now do this with more respect for mankind than we did back then, because progress does not have to be at the expense of our current social framework. The freedom to do business should keep our built and dear care society alive, by guaranteeing sufficient income. The anthropocentrism within industry 4.0 is vital for humanity and our society.
Governments must therefore create a clear framework in which (growing) companies and start-ups can try, fail and grow more than ever, with all the support and stimulus they need. In addition to less complex rules and smarter taxes for businesses, our government must involve and activate all other parties within our future success story so that they can fulfill their role optimally, such as education and the population.
To the population
The government must support citizens to continuously learn and adapt in a fast-changing world, by structurally supporting education and entrepreneurship. On the other hand, all citizens must also take initiative themselves and undertake or participate themselves. Provided the appropriate incentives from the government, we can better invest the 278 billion capital which have been evaporating in savings for years, in our own economy.
In 2019 our growth companies received a record amount of 748 million euros in support, but the 3 largest capital rounds (Collibra, Showpad and Secure Code Warrior) were mainly fueled by foreign (American) venture capital. Why do these funds invest in our products and services and not us? Why do we let the brain drain happen before our eyes which would have cost us less than 0.3% of our savings? But above all, what could it have yield us? No better investment in a company around the corner that can provide work for fellow citizens and grow from its own region into a global pioneer. Just think of Carta Mundi, which crowned itself from the traditional card manufacturer to the number one on physical and virtual map level.
For centuries we have been a conquered region, and some claim that we still are, but don't we owe this mainly to ourselves? Because if we are a region to be conquered, then there must be wealth here. Let us use it to invest in ourselves, in our own entrepreneurs and businesses. Who knows, if our engine runs on its own power, we might even take the next step and invest venture capital in the world ourselves, like the Belgian entrepreneurs-bankers of the 19th century or the Norwegian state pension fund which has more than 1000 billion, mainly in foreign investments.
To the educational institutions
In addition to a free business climate with sufficient capital, education also plays an essential role. Our current education is currently too focused on outdated knowledge and skills, while society outside the school walls is rapidly becoming a technological interconnected reality. In addition to political policymakers, it is also the responsibility of those responsible for education at all levels, from basic to higher. Instead of offering digitized, old knowledge, we must dare to think revolutionarily and invest heavily in an education in which digital and distributed thinking and doing become an essential part of our education and our way of life.
The technology offers us new ways that can be much more widely accessible, so let us take advantage of this. Just think of the MOOC’s (Massive Open Online Courses), online classes which millions of people can take anywhere at any time in the world. Moreover, everyone can now indulge in the knowledge of the best and learn from masters like Leonardo da Vinci did with his master Verrochio. Because of the corona, we were already able to experience a pre-taste of new learning and communication platforms, from webinars to video conferencing. Secondly, the need for 21st century-new agora as antidote against the virtual overload increases, places where we can really meet others, to talk to each other, inspire, live and experience together. All this can and must be played out much better, so that in the future everyone can continue to learn and continuously improve and excel onto our winding staircase of wisdom.
If we dare to make the right choices, education will play an even greater emancipatory role here and elsewhere and offer more opportunities for children and adults through digital tools. Those choices also require courage from both our educational institutions, as from our politicians. Who will combine vision, courage and decisiveness to completely redesign education, determine new learning content, educate teaching staff and tune the entire infrastructure? This is the only way that future generations will be able to keep up with the rhythm of technology, and even more, will be able to set that pace and leverage that acceleration together with the rest of the world.
To the entrepreneurs
Just as we lose our job and meaning as a person if we lose our comparative advantage, so we can lose our jobs as a region. That's why companies and their entrepreneurs have a crucial role and responsibility just as governments, educational institutions and citizens. They must become the real inspirators and champions of innovation, to avoid that our region one day is suddenly overtaken and outdone.
As a result of digitalization, the convergence of technology is happening faster and faster, and industries and their companies are being overtaken or bypassed by new evolutions. Companies like Kodak and Nokia, for example, lost their position in a few years due to the emergence of new technology which broke their quasi-monopoly by merging their technology with another technology. This kind of disruptive technology is becoming more and more prevalent, and companies in any sector must guard against it.
Embracing new technology is essential here. By massively focusing on production techniques such as 3D-printing, Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality, … we can be a game changer and become less dependent on other regions. The other scenario in which we are overtaken or completely outdated before realizing it is not an option.
Companies such as Materialise are already creating the outlines of tomorrow, but the sector is still at the beginning of its full maturity. From organs to houses, we continuously print more complex and larger projects, but the margin of growth is still enormous. For this we need daredevils and visionaries, purebred entrepreneurs that develop technology that is very easily accessible for everyone and that is always at the service and needs of everyone. Technology will and must be made for and tailored to humanity, or it won't be.
This is not a manifesto
In our small country we have an incredible amount of wealth in many areas. One is proximity to businesses and educational institutions, as is also our central location in political Europe and our world ports on the world's economic arteries.
Our region has the ideal breeding ground for a technological hub which can bring us back to the top of the world. Our region can, embedded within a new European brain belt from Dresden to Toulouse, be the pumping heart of a renaissance 4.0 as our region was during the 14th - 15th century and the first industrial revolution of the 19th century.
With the necessary courage of our entrepreneurs, the vital support of a progressive government, and education which prepares us for the future, with citizens who invest their capital in their own region, we as a region can put ourselves back on the world map as innovative entrepreneurs.
Governments, educational institutions, citizens and entrepreneurs, let us fully believe in ourselves and invest in the world of tomorrow. In our country we not only have an incredibly rich tradition of innovation and excellence, from Van Eyck to Materialise, today we have all the tools necessary to realize this again and even inspire others, instead of looking at others now.
Only if we all put together all our knowledge, skills and resources for a manufacturing industry 4.0, we will experience a rebirth of our most glorious times in a society 4.0. Long live technology, long live humanity!
 Automatons are objects which, once set in motion, continue to move or work on their own, such as clocks or watches. As early as the fourth century B.C., Heron of Alexandria described a mechanical, wooden dove that moved on a stick. In ancient times, automatons were driven by running water, weights, cogs or steam. At the same time the Chinese started to build automatons. They often looked like living creatures, from fishing otters to orchestras making music for the emperor. Around 1000 traders brought the Chinese automatons with them to Europe, and they started to build automatons here as well. Around 1500 a German clock builder invented the spring which eliminated the need for steam or running water and turned automatons into real self-contained machines
 Abeele, C. V. D. (2020, 2 januari). More and more money in savings books. Consulted from https://www.vrt.be/vrtnws/nl/2020/01/02/steeds-meer-geld-op-spaarboekjes/
 Trends. (2019, 26 december). Financing of growing companies is peaking. Consulted from https://trends.knack.be/economie/ondernemen/financiering-van-groeibedrijven-piekt/article-news-1547437.html?cookie_check=158810177