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Project in the spotlight

This is how FIT gives trade promotion a boost during COVID-19 through artificial intelligence (AI)

Brussels, 9 December 2020 – Business trips, trade fairs, site visits ... Numerous traditional methods of promoting international trade and investment are no longer options due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Flanders Investment & Trade (FIT) is therefore even more resolutely playing the digitization and virtual event cards, together with and for the business world. The foundation for these efforts is a well-considered digitization strategy that has artificial intelligence (AI) as a cornerstone.

From September 2019 to June 2020, FIT has been able to rely on the advice of EU experts for its AI strategy through European Commission’s DG REFORM. The European Commission helps EU member states in their efforts to create jobs and achieve sustainable growth. Today, DG REFORM is putting the AI project ‘A blueprint for Artificial Intelligence at Flanders Investment & Trade’ forward as the first ‘project in the spotlights’.

According to an assessment, as part of a larger technical support project by DG REFORM, FIT is ‘AI-ready’. “FIT has been transforming into a data-driven organization since 2016. For this pioneering role, FIT is now receiving recognition from the European Commission,” says Claire Tillekaerts, CEO of FIT. “As an agency, we must continue to provide optimal support for international entrepreneurship in these trying times, thereby helping to safeguard our economy, business and prosperity. To this aim, AI is – as in many other domains – a true game changer.”

The power of data

Central to FIT’s AI efforts are its customers: Flanders-based firms with export ambitions and foreign companies interested in investing in Flanders.

“Everything around us – from our smartphones to websites and smart cities – generates data,” explains Claire Tillekaerts. “FIT also generates a goldmine of data. Our more than 100 Economic Representatives and Science & Technology Counselors worldwide are our eyes and ears when it comes to identifying market opportunities and gather all their knowledge in a unified CRM system. In Flanders, too, our employees work with data on a daily basis: import and export statistics, social media analytics, data from other government institutions, and so on. All this ‘business intelligence’ helps us strengthen the international competitiveness of companies in a tailored way. With an optimized data culture, digital marketing, knowledge sharing and AI, we are constantly modernizing this customer interaction.”

For example, artificial intelligence enables FIT to provide even more and better advice to companies. New trends and business opportunities are identified, predicted and shared even faster, so that companies can respond more flexibly to these insights. Moreover, when it comes to attracting foreign investment to the Flanders – a field in which the region has to compete against economic superpowers within the EU –, AI also helps FIT outpace the competition in a world that is changing rapidly.

Why it matters to be data driven: putting the economic COVID-19 figures into perspective

The benefits of data management and AI are a welcome catalyst during the COVID-19 pandemic – the economic figures make this crystal clear. Since the start of the crisis in March 2020, the competitiveness of companies has been seriously dented. For example, the World Trade Organization (WTO) predicts that the global volume of traded goods will have fallen by 9.2% by the end of 2020. In the first eight months of 2020, Flanders’ goods exports decreased by 12.15% compared to the same period in 2019.

The prospects for foreign investment aren’t positive either. For instance, UNCTAD estimated the decline in foreign investment flows in the first half of 2020 to be as much as 49%. The fDi Index of fDi Intelligence (Financial Times) – an index that monitors the sentiment of foreign investors – even fell by over 50% in the spring of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. In the meantime, the decline has shrunk to 34.4% for December 2020 compared to December 2019. Furthermore, fDi Intelligence notes that foreign companies are once again beginning to show strong signs of investment intentions. Being the first to capture such concrete investment signals is an important motive for FIT to focus on a data-driven approach.

From pilot projects to concrete services

While there are still many opportunities to grasp in order to realize the full potential of AI, there are plenty of examples of how FIT is already making progress today.

Peter Bulckaert, Department Head for IT, Human Resources, Finance: “Pilot projects, developed with the support of the European Regional Development and the Hermes Fund, quickly convinced us of the added value of AI. Today, we have a coordinated, organization-wide and long-term AI strategy, which we are rolling out step by step. Meanwhile, we already use AI on questions from Flanders-based companies about foreign markets. FIT processes more than 10,000 questions every year. COVID-19 has certainly not slowed down the flow. On the contrary: the number of questions has remained constant and has even exceeded our average figures several times compared to other years. The trends and data concerning these questions as well as our market advice are ideal for applying AI. How? By using algorithms to generate – almost in real time – suggestions for highly relevant answers. Thanks to this project, which we realized together with Flanders-based start-up Radix, FIT can offer even more export companies useful and tailored advice.”

“With Arinti, a Flanders-based data specialist, we took a close look at our knowledge and business databases,” adds Peter Bulckaert. “The company developed an intelligent search robot that automatically uncovers patterns, connections and derived information within the many thousands of FIT documents and data related to export and foreign investments. In this way, our employees can make knowledge and expertise from within and outside FIT available to the business world even faster.”

Source of inspiration

“FIT is one of the few trade promotion government agencies in Europe that focuses on AI and thus also puts Flanders on the map as a tech-driven region,” comments Minister-President of Flanders Jan Jambon. “Not only am I pleased with the support that Flanders is receiving from the European Commission for these efforts, I am also convinced that DG REFORM’s recognition will open the door to even more innovation in the future.”

“In addition to supporting companies with their international ambitions, we hope that our AI projects will also inspire,” adds Claire Tillekaerts, CEO of FIT. “Through their interactions with FIT, companies will be able to discover the potential of AI as well. In addition, we are sharing our knowledge with other government agencies in Flanders by integrating our data systems more closely, for instance. The collaboration between FIT and Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship is a good example of this approach.”

Want to find out more about FIT’s AI strategy?