First launched in 2015, the government's Digital Wallonia programme sets the policy framework for Wallonia's digital transformation. Meeting with Maddyness during Vivatech 2022.
With a strong digital ecosystem of more than 2,500 companies, Wallonia captures the added value of the digital economy for its territory and all its sectors of activity, while relying on these main sectors: Industry (including circular materials, agile design and production), Health, Energy, Housing, Agri-food and Environment.
As Stéphane Ernst, digital economy specialist and co-leader of the Digital Wallonia International programme, explains, "Our strategy will continue to focus on mature technologies, but even more on advanced technologies such as IOT, blockchain, Virtual and Augmented Reality and, of course, AI. These new technologies are as much a guarantee of the competitiveness of our companies as a source of revenue, as the growth of this sector is estimated at 26% over the next eight years. Today, a company offering a technological solution has every interest in focusing on innovative technologies."
Data: the "backbone" of the company
If the Walloon government wants to focus its efforts on AI, it is because data is more than ever an asset for companies, its "backbone" as Stéphane Ernst describes it. But it is more than that. "This data becomes a real asset for better understanding a business, improving it and consolidating its growth. It also allows us to question our business model because when we can ask ourselves "what data will allow me to make the best decision", AI is obviously real added value for the development of companies. So, all the technologies that are conducive to the collection and processing of data to extract its essence are at the heart of our digital strategy," he continues.
With worldwide spending on artificial intelligence expected to reach $110 billion in 2024 (up from $50.1 billion in 2020), according to the IDC (Worldwide Artificial Intelligence Spending Guide), this technology is a major source of business and quickly becoming the keystone of competitiveness. This is a reality that Wallonia defends and wants to embody with its programme specially dedicated to Artificial Intelligence technologies: "DigitalWallonia4.ai".
"DigitalWallonia4.ai": spearheading the promotion of the "AI ecosystem" in Wallonia
Willy Borsus, Walloon Minister of Economy, Research and Innovation, is piloting Wallonia's digital strategy and its "DigitalWallonia4.ai" programme, which is linked to the national "AI4Belgium" programme and the European Digital Europe programme. Interviewed by Maddyness, he believes that "digital transformation through data and AI is a strategic issue for maintaining or increasing the competitiveness of companies. The theme of AI is therefore the subject of special attention from the Walloon government."
Launched in 2019, "DigitalWallonia4.ai" aims to accelerate the adoption of AI and the development of an "AI ecosystem" (currently with 220 ecosystem stakeholders, 160 of which are commercial companies) through three key concepts: raising awareness, training, and support. "We support companies wanting to incorporate AI into their business with an upstream and downstream vision that extends from the identification of AI opportunities to the design of the solution, its POC, and then its commercialisation," explains Willy Borsus.
Financial mechanisms to support digital transformation in AI are therefore available to create "augmented" products and services that will strengthen the competitiveness of the Walloon industrial fabric.
TRAIL: the collective working to support AI
As AI cannot be developed without research and innovation, some 50 AI researchers from universities and research centres in Wallonia founded the TRAIL (Trusted AI Labs) collective in 2020 in close collaboration with the Agency for Digitisation and AIBelgium.
The idea? To promote the emergence of talent, consolidate cutting-edge research and contribute to the appropriation of AI by companies and public services. Aware of the relevance of this collective, the government has granted it a budget of 32 million euros over six years to conduct the ARIAC ("Applications and Research for Trusted Artificial Intelligence") project, whose objective is to create computer tools based on trusted AI, while funding hybridisation activities with companies to strengthen the impact on the Walloon economic fabric.
Within the framework of the ARIAC by DigitalWallonia4.ai project, the research consortium will start its third phase in July and several start-ups and scale-ups (present at Vivatech 2022) are already demonstrating this high added value integration of AI in their solutions.