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In 2021, the Resilient Regional Ecosystems for Social Innovation first came together in a project funded by the European Commission. In the immediate aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, the project sought to identify best practices in the support of social enterprises from across Europe, sharing these insights across the regions involved in the project. These cities and regions were The Hague (the Netherlands), the Province of Antwerp (Belgium), Efeler District (Turkiye), the Region of Hannover (Germany) and Aalst (Belgium). In addition to these regions, the consortium included Social Enterprise NL and Euclid Network. 

 

A diverse group of stakeholders were brought together in each workshop including representatives from the local authorities but also social enterprise support organisations, social finance providers and social enterprises themselves. As part of the project, workshops were organised in The Hague, Antwerp and Efeler to showcase these ecosystems. Since the project finished in 2021 however, both the local authorities of Hannover and Aalst have organised follow up workshops to bring the network together again, showcase their ecosystems and continue to build connections with other leading ecosystems across the continent.

A day out in Aalst 

The City of Aalst was the smallest local authority to be involved in the RRESI project with a population of around 90000 inhabitants. Located between Brussels and Gent, the city is famous for its annual carnival festivities. The carnival is not the only thing to write home about as was demonstrated on this more professional excursion in March 2023. 

The day started out with a much need cup of coffee at the City Hall where the Alderman and representatives from Aalst kicked-off the day with a presentation about the city. After a break of two years since the last workshop in Hannover, it was also a chance for the partners to catch-up on the last two years. 

A short walk from the City Hall brought us to the first stop of the day: the Broeikas. Translated from Flemish, ‘the Broeikas’ means ‘the greenhouse’. Of course, this greenhouse is not for growing plants but focused on helping young people to grow their entrepreneurial ambitions into a successful enterprise. Located in the campus of the Gent Hogeschol (university college) in Aalst, this is a perfect place to reach young aspiring entrepreneurs. Here the work of the Broeikas was presented as well as some insights on the Flemish legal framework for student entrepreneurs who can register with a special status offering tax advantages. At the Broeikas the group also met the first entrepreneurs of the day from Tip Toh, a new company making plant based milk from yellow split peas.

After some coffee and a sample of the pea milk, it was already time for lunch and the group walked to Cimorné. This building takes its name from the French words for ‘cement’ and ‘ornate’ and refers to an artistic style of using broken glass in cement to make it more beautiful. Owned by Stroom, a local social enterprise, Cimorné in Aalst is home to a number of social enterprises working in a range of sectors including bike repairs and catering. 

To get to the third stop of the day, everyone took to their bike to ride along the river to MAAAT, a work integration social enterprise in the manufacturing sector. No trip to Flanders would be complete without a visit to such an enterprise which are almost synonymous with the Flemish social economy. Here the Director of MAAAT took the group around, explaining the evolution of the business, how they are diversifying the sectors they work in and how they are working to provide supported employment to those at a distance to the labour market.

For the final stop of the day, the participants rode back along the river to Walstroom, a new site supported by the local government. This provides a space for start-ups, especially those led by young people, to locate their business. Situated next to the Kringwinkel and on the site of an old harbour, it was the perfect place to conclude the visit. 

What’s next for the RRESI project partners? More than two years after the project came to an end, the partners are still in contact and finding new ways to collaborate with each other. This is certainly not something you see at the end of every European project. With no cities left to visit from the initial network, perhaps the future lies in the expansion of this group.

ImpactFest in The Hague on 7thNovember is the next date in the collective agenda but what comes after this remains to be seen.

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