Brussels transport gets overhaul, courtesy of teenagers

Busy street traffic on the Rue de la Regence street of Brussels, Belgian tram and cars. [Photo: Shutterstock/Alexandros Michailidis]

Brussels is well known for its chocolate, its variety of beers, its art-deco buildings… and its traffic jams. High school students from all around Europe have now presented their proposals to make the city’s mobility system more sustainable, thanks to the Sci-tech challenge.

The Sci-Tech Challenge is designed to motivate teenage students to consider a STEM-oriented career (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Hundreds of young people from all corners of Europe took part this year.

But there could only be one winner. ‘Brumsels’, a project designed by Italian high-school students Federico, Ramya, Eleonora, Matteo and Gaetano, got the nod from the jury after a final chance to present their project in Brussels on Wednesday (15 May).

‘Brumsels’ aims to provide “a more efficient organisation of public services, especially by exploiting innovative technologies and vehicles that currently are not present on the market,” the students explained.

They proposed to do so by closing the city centre to non-electric vehicles,  providing new alternative transports such as ‘podbikes’, replacing half of the current bus fleet with electric vehicles and introducing supercapacitor technology in tramways.

Trams with supercapacitors would only have to carry enough charge to make it to the next stop, where the vehicle would be recharged extremely quickly. That has advantages over batteries, as space and weight would be saved, and the cumbersome overhead cables would be gone.

The Italian students also aim to make public transport more user-friendly. In order to do so, they proposed to create an app that would allow you to plan your movements, but also pay for the ticket, no matter what means of transport you chose.

By using the app, citizens would build up discounts for centres of interest like theatres or restaurants, which would advertise their services in the app in order to reduce the cost.

The main objective of ‘Brumsels’ is to prove that “even a metropolitan city can be green,” they stressed. The jury valued the Italian plan as “the most innovative, applicable, realistic and feasible, doing a deep dive in the economic and environmental impact,” among the candidates.

Students from Belgium, the Netherlands and Romania were the other finalists, with proposals going from watered areas to absorb emissions in the surroundings of the city; more cycling paths; garages outside town so that people coming in can leave their cars in the suburbs; hybrid double-deckers or even cable cars.

“You did a great job in finding innovative solutions that Brussels indeed needs. Now that we are in the campaign – Belgium is holding regional and national elections in two weeks – we hope that policymakers will take some of them,” joked Nikolaas Baeckelmans, vice president of EU affairs at ExxonMobil and member of the jury.

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Turning ideas into reality

“One of the biggest reasons why young people don’t start a business, later on, is often because they are afraid of failing,” said Caroline Jenner, CEO of JA Europe.

“If you can do this when you are at school; and you can fail a few times and you are in a safe place and everybody helps you pick up… that feeling stops being a problem and you end up remembering more about how good it all was and not how frustrating or how terrifying it was,” Jenner explained.

“That’s what motivates young people to start businesses and create value later on,” she stressed, and that is why JA Europe, a non-profit organisation focused on promoting entrepreneurial education, has joined forces with international oil and gas corporation ExxonMobil, to support Sci-tech challenge. 

“Entrepreneurship can be taught,” Philippe Ducom, president of ExxonMobil Europe, told the final conference in Brussels. And the earlier it is done, the sooner it becomes part of your nature, he stressed.

“It is important that we make sure that the next generation is equipped with the abilities and the skills to bring about the solutions that we need,” he added.

Synergies among different organisations are key to do so. “One of the things they say about school is that it is not connected with reality, but this is happening more and more,” said Liliana Preoteasa, director at the ministry of national education of Romania.

“The biggest challenge for education is to prepare students for jobs that do not yet exist,” Preoteasa explained but said that by cooperating with the Commission, businesses and other organisations, schools can provide the students with skills they will need anyway such as teamwork, communication, cooperation or using IT.

Said El Khadraoui, an adviser at the European Political Strategy Centre of the Commission, defended the need to invest in innovation so that businesses, organisations and universities can work together to bring up the inventors of the future. “Beyond technology and education, we need a change in mindset,” he said.

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[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Sam Morgan]

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