The Word Magazine x Atrium Brussels: Listen to the city

For far too long, innovation has been kept at a distance from public entities. Indeed, the inner workings of public office don’t always warm up to anything new – and it goes both ways. The prime culprit is a life spent in the ivory towers of the sixties, far removed from the streets, normal people and trends. Running contrary to the prevailing thinking, Atrium.Brussels, the regional agency for commerce, aims to reinvent public service, and the way that it works. We zoom in on four die-hard Brussels-lovers who reveal that innovation starts first and foremost by keeping an ear to the ground.

Listen to the people

Kurt is a socialogue on wheels. Born in the Canary Islands, he grew up in French-speaking Wallonia, studied in Barcelona and today works in Brussels. At Atrium, his job consists of listening to Brussels’ locals. Through investigations, round tables and games, he seeks to identify how residents live in their neighbourhood, how they love them, how they loath them and how they imagine them. He sees his city like a living field that has the power to act, react and interact. « If you create a project somewhere whilst deeming its environment a mere detail, not only do you take the risk of minimal innovation, you also run the risk of your project failing. To initiate projects that have some sense, some meaning, it isn’t recommended to turn your back to the city. You’ve got to feel it, touch it, live it. To innovate is to be in constant contact with reality.

Léo is a designer. In a few weeks, she’ll be launching Atrium.Lab – an experimentation space in the same vein as the living labs – to think about tomorrow’s local commerce. The initiative’s questions are numerous : How to deck out the interiors of local businesses in a durable manner ? How to support small business owners in the ever-changing nature of their trade ? How can technology help them? The specificity of the lab is its three-pronged approach : for users, with users and by users. For Léo, this vision reconciles public services with concepts of service, and concepts of people. « We need to come back to an intellectual simplicity and to ask people what they really want without wanting to answer for them. Our task is to define parameters for thinking and acting, an ecosystem in which users, creatives, will truly be able to flourish and create what they will need.

Listen to the future

At Atrium, Jérémy coaches start-ups that wish to open a commerce. What he truly enjoys is trendwatching, a passion that you can hardly do by remaining desk-bound. « To get a feeling for tomorrow’s trends, I need to listen to cities. You need to be able to feel cities such as London, Berlin or even Ouagadougou to know what will life in Brussels be like tomorrow. I also discover trends with the commerce-candidates I follow. I coach and poke them but their ideas, in the end, also contribute to shaping Atrium’s philosophy. If I realise that my company goes against what people in the field tell me, I say so. As much internally as externally, I get paid to bring something of the avant-garde to the table. »

Max is in charge of Atrium’s digital strategy. His pronounced accent from Toulouse is most probably an asset when it comes to explaining to the administrative dinosaurs how open, big or smart data works. Today, he’s hard at work developing Atrium. Analytics which should soon allow the agency to use local business data to guide projects, public entities or retailers. Today, machine-to-machine communication allows not only for a descriptive analysis but for a more predictive one, allowing to concentrate on what might happen in the future as opposed to merely describing what may have happened in the past. Just like a GPS, I think that the role of public services such as Atrium is less about predicting the time of destination, but more about advising on the best way to get there. Where should I open my new store? How can I optimise my sales while minimizing the risk? What should I do? We have all the data we need to answer these questions. We just need to listen. ”

For more information on Atrium.Brussels and its projects, visit