Today Smart is present in seven countries: Belgium (where the project originated in 1998), France (since 2007), but also Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria and Sweden. Very few social enterprises have succeeded to grow at such a scale, and to be active throughout a continent and even beyond.
During its first six years (from 1998 to 2008), Smart saw rapid growth in Belgium. An achievement that encouraged it to bring the model to France in 2008. Today, Smart France and Belgium form a single entity with joint executive management and teams.
In 2020, what we refer to as international growth for Smart France and Belgium means two things:
- Initiatives that most often originate in countries outside Europe, for which project initiators contact us to draw inspiration from the Smart model and to try to duplicate it. In recent years we have seen examples of such initiatives in Australia, Canada, the United States, Morocco, Finland, the UK, Chile and South Korea. We provide assistance with preliminary studies and to find funding;
- Smart is a founding partner for social economy companies in five countries (Spain, Italy, Sweden, Austria, Germany), which enable freelance workers to develop their professional activity within a secure, supporting framework. These entities initially introduced Smart in their countries’ creative sectors and are now seeking to expand and reach other target groups. The challenge for these structures is to find the right economic model that incorporates the project’s social aspect.
Smart’s international development
Three principal phases can be distinguished in Smart’s international growth:
Phase one, from 2007 to 2015, characterised by launch and rapid growth:
This period is characterised by empirical experience and the use of networks to facilitate meetings and identify potential project initiators in several European countries.
It all began in 2007, in France, where we pinpointed numerous partners in several areas to achieve rapid nationwide coverage. Both partners and the French project rapidly became firmly established in the social and solidarity economy.
In 2010, Smart Belgium began meeting with new potential partners and funding preparatory studies in other European countries. A team and resources were devoted to this flurry of activity.
Phase two, from 2015 to 2019, brought structure to the international network:
Beginning in 2015, Smart set up in Belgium, France, Austria, Germany, Sweden, Hungary, the Netherlands, Spain, and Italy.
France and Belgium ‘merged’ and pooled resources. In the seven other countries, non-profit or cooperative structures were set up in which Smart served as a key partner in financing decisions and as a valuable resource by virtue of its experience.
In most cases, an office was opened in the country’s capital city, except for Spain where Smart operated in conjunction with a major cooperative group that was already running several sites.
In 2015-2019, we were able to further and effectively formalise relations between these partners and Smart Belgium, the aim being to improve convergence of models and services.
The various Smart entities experienced strong growth, the development of a cooperative life, the structuring of services and new business activity.
Phase 3 began in 2020. It aims to increase the autonomy of international partners:
In 2020, there are decisive economic elements. Smart offices in the Netherlands and Hungary have been put on hold; these two countries have not (yet) found their target audience. They would require resources that we would rather allocate to achieving an expected economic equilibrium in Spain, Italy, Sweden, Germany and Austria.
All five Smart entities, except for France and Belgium, need to reach economic equilibrium by the end of 2023. The Belgian boards of directors voted unanimously to support the project for European growth as initiated in 2010, on the condition that economic efficiency is coupled with Smart’s social project.
Why did Smart want to expand beyond Belgium?
First and foremost, such expansion would never have been possible without Smart’s initial success and rapid growth. Other decisive factors came into play: Belgium’s position in Europe and the mobility of members.
The main reason for Smart’s internationalisation is its very own purpose: a project for social change that addresses needs that are similar throughout much of the world. Why not provide this solution elsewhere than in Belgium?
Smart is a project for social innovation that aims to transform the world of work. If it wants to fundamentally change the system, it must be active at a European, even global level.
If we look closely at the reasons for Smart’s internationalisation, we distinguish three complementary motivational factors:
- Political reasons, in line with Smart’s lobbying activities:
Smart’s presence at an international level proves that it is certainly not an exclusively Belgian phenomenon, but rather a universal solution. The aura and impact of Smart is not the same when speaking of a Franco-Belgian project, than when speaking about an endeavour that has shown its worth in seven countries and is in the process of being launched in the United States, Australia, Canada, South Korea and elsewhere. Even more so, few social economy companies have demonstrated their ability to grow in several countries or even continents.
- Operational and economic reasons:
Smart members are certainly very active internationally. Their strong presence in a number of countries serves to further promote mobility. For example, in Austria and Germany, with our support, partners operate a Helpdesk to answer questions about the international mobility of workers.
Smart’s commitment outside Belgium can also be considered as an investment in markets that could soon see growth along the same lines as Smart Belgium.
- Finally, growth beyond Belgium’s borders is also an opportunity to establish a network for future testing and experimenting.
Different geographical areas can bring new ideas, while projects on a smaller scale can be an opportunity to test and experiment… In this sense, Smart’s international growth is also a means for research and development.
What approach has Smart used to grow outside Belgium?
Smart Belgium’s desire has always been to co-develop a project with local partners and project initiators who are familiar with business contexts and markets and who draw inspiration from the successful Belgian enterprise in order to develop a similar solution.
Smart addresses a need that has been previously expressed and identified, one that is present in, say, Germany and Spain, as well as in Belgium. Such a need requires a practical response and the proven success of the Smart concept in Belgium often provides necessary leverage.
The Franco-Belgian group can therefore be seen as a cofounder, a partner, but also an investor. As in many social enterprises, Smart aims to grow in order to widen its social impact by striking a balance between economic stability and social purpose, thereby helping to bring about social change.