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Collections of Ghent – Connecting citizens through digitised cultural heritage reuse and co-creation


Collections of Ghent is an EU-funded innovation project designed to tackle the urban challenge: How to digitise cultural heritage beyond the cultural institutions, on a city level or higher. And how to use it to improve social cohesion and inclusion within a neighbourhood. It is both a digital transformation project, and a social innovation project where we research how digital cultural heritage can be used in co-creative and participative way.

Innovation Summary

Innovation Overview

Most cities in Europe are digitising their cultural heritage but often lack the tools to leverage this rich data to engage their citizens. Either the data is stuck within institutional silos. Or does not engage citizens to contribute to or reuse this shared heritage. With Collections of Ghent we focus on improving cultural participation and social cohesion in public and third places through the use of linked open data and digital technologies.

This three year project started in July 2020, and has been made possible through an Urban Innovative Actions grant as part of the European Regional Development Fund. A programme specifically targeted towards cities to test innovative solutions for sustainable urban development. Collections of Ghent is set up as a quadruple helix consortium, with local partners from within government, industry, academia and civil society that all work together on this transversal project.

The project started by bringing the collections of the 5 participating cultural heritage institutions together on a technical level. Based on the current technology stack and needs we determined what foundation is needed to open up cultural heritage in a digital way beyond the institutional silos, by using Linked Open Data principles and international standards.

We have done this by creating a decentralised data infrastructure, making use of Linked Data Event Stream (LDES). For every cultural heritage institution there is an LDES API to publish and manage their data, giving the cultural institution control over their own data. The project was also an early adopter of OSLO, a Flemish application protocol using international standards to make the data interoperable on a semantic level. The resulting datastreams are five star linked data rated, as they link to external data sources, 5 international sources (RKD, ULAN, AAT, TGN, WikiData) and 2 Flemish (Inventaris Onroerend Erfgoed & Kunstenpunt). On top of that we created a digital asset management system based on a microservice architecture allowing for these LDESs to be ingested to enriching heritage imagery with metadata about the object and to open up that image under the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) for image and presentation APIs.

This technical foundation was needed to bring the ‘CoGent Box’ alive, a mobile digital experience room that physically brings the digital collection to 3 different neighbourhoods in the city. In the box citizens can see stories based on this digitised cultural heritage, as well as explore the full collection thanks to its online connection. This box then serves as a core location for community and neighbourhood workers to engage local residents to experience and contribute to the shared heritage. They do this by organising heritage based activities in the neighbourhood, creating a cultural participation toolkit to train and engage local ambassadors and more.

In the end we want to measure how these different tools and activities impact social cohesion and inclusion on a neighbourhood level. The research is based on the theory of change methodology. We also wanted to move beyond just opening heritage, and stimulate reuse on a city level. We have done this through a cultural data lab, to experiment and engage technical open data communities to re-use heritage data. The lab organises events such as workshops, talks and hackathons. And we’ve also set up a co-creation fund, mini-grants, to incentivise creative and technical profiles to make new products and activities based on this shared collection. This will give us new insights in how to activate open data reuse in both technical and non-technical communities. To create both functional cultural experiences and social cohesion efforts, but also to create new forms of art.

The resulting CoGent box will be given a permanent place in the future wing of the Design Museum Gent, a permanent cultural third place. And the underlying technology and methods will provide the basis for the Ghent museums and archives to leverage their digital collections to connect and collaborate with citizens. The results will also be shared with other cultural organisations and cities in Europe who are working on opening up their cultural heritage collections. The project is based on open international standards, all the software is opened up under open source licences and we openly communicate about the results to the outside world and our different communities.

Innovation Description

What Makes Your Project Innovative?

The project is innovative on multiple levels. The technical level, the activation level and on a collaborative level.

  • On a technical level it is about implementing cutting edge technology in a government IT environment. Like the mentioned LDES, DAMS, IIIF integration is not something we have seen on other governmental levels.
  • On an activation level is about enabling citizens to work with, around or about cultural heritage. We invite community workers and ambassadors to experiment with different types of activities and tools and see what activates communities in a neighbourhood the best.
  • On a collaborative level we innovate on working with a complex quadruple helix system. Where we move from a government-supplier way of thinking, to a networked partnership way of thinking. See conditions for success.

What is the current status of your innovation?

The project is expected to go through all phases from July 2020 to June 2023. We are now in the implementation phase where the CoGent box is travelling to three different neighbourhoods in Ghent.

The box landed in Wondelgem in April ‘22, in Watersportbaan-Ekkergem in August and will land in the last neighbourhood in November. The box is active for three months in each location.

In every neighbourhood we are also working towards the evaluation phase to research whether the technology and actions in the neighbourhood have any impact on social cohesion.

Our researchers are using the Theory of Change Methodology to research the social impact. In neighbourhood 1 they used participatory methods to define the change model with cultural institutions as well as community workers. In neighbourhood 2 they’re assessing the impact based on qualitative metrics and in the last neighbourhood they’re using both qualitative as well as quantitative measurement to get a grasp of the possible impact

Innovation Development

Collaborations & Partnerships

Collections of Ghent consists of a quadruple helix consortium of partners, coming from a government, industry, academic and societal perspective.

  • Government: The City of Ghent and District09 (IT-government agency)
  • Cultural Institutions: Design Museum Gent, Ghent Archive, Huis Van Alijn, Industry Museum Gent, STAM City Museum.
  • Companies: Inuits, Chase Creative, Fisheye and Studio Dott
  • Civil Society orgs: Meemoo and iDrops
  • Academic: Ghent University with the IDLab and MICT research groups

Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries

  • Our focus in the test-phase is to specifically activate citizens and social actors in the three targeted testing neighbourhoods.
  • On a city scale we target cultural data reusers. Both citizens, companies, creative coders, makerlabs as well as non-profits in the cultural sector.
  • The results of the projects are mainly targeted towards cultural institutions and cultural departments on local and regional level on how to move forward with digitising cultural heritage.

Innovation Reflections

Results, Outcomes & Impacts

As we are still in the implementation and evaluation phase no final results can be shared just yet, we hope to share those by the end of june 2023. For the social research we rely on the theory of change methodology which is set up in a participative way in the project. We’re using a combination of qualitative and quantitative research methods to ensure results. For the economic research we are working towards a value network analysis combined with a cost benefit quantification.

Challenges and Failures

One of the biggest challenges was starting up this project when social cohesion and cultural experiences were at its lowest since ages: During the beginning of the COVID Crisis. Not only was this a major challenge to reach citizens and communities in the exploratory phase, to discover opportunities or generate ideas. It was also very difficult to bring this complex consortium of 13 partners together to define the next steps for a project that relied on a lot of activities in the field, to bring people together.

Another challenge was to bring together two very different living environments together in this project. On the one hand the cultural institutions who are looking for a way to digitise their cultural heritage and on the other hand the community workers who are the voice of the people in the neighbourhoods, often with low digital skills and sometimes lack of cultural interests.

Conditions for Success

We do see the value of creating a quadruple helix consortium to tackle wicked urban challenges. Although it also serves as a challenge, it does provide you with deep knowledge on different factors early in the project. Often public sector innovation relies on heavy procurement procedures that do not incentivize small and innovative organisations to participate. Or at least the procurement procedure means the timing, budget and scope is pre-determined by the government.

Through this project we are in a 13 partnership co-funded by the UIA programme of European Regional development fund. Meaning all partners have a stake and buy-in in this project and were involved in the project set up since the beginning. This moves us beyond the typical customer - supplier relationships and towards a more democratic collaborative innovation environment. This networked model of innovation should be the way forward for complex urban challenges.


Replication of the proposed solutions is mainly happening on a technical level. Because it is about aggregating and linking digitised cultural heritage on a higher level, there is certain interest to see how this could be a foundation project to aggregate cultural heritage data on a regional level. The region of Flanders is already researching how to create a digital infrastructure for the digital collections in which Collections of Ghent is a possible scenario for replication and scale.

Lessons Learned

Our biggest lesson learned is both our biggest challenge and our greatest asset: The width of this project.

Regardless of budget. Think about both the required technical infrastructure, as well as societal goals and impact you want to create. Make sure the research capabilities are there to (1) validate the tech works, (2) there is social or societal impact and (3) that there is some sense of techno-economical research to ensure this innovation project can be sustained after the research is over. Otherwise you end up in a chicken or egg situation.

Focus only on setting up digital infrastructure, then you fail to show the benefits of opening up digitised cultural heritage to create social or economical value. Or you focus on the social impact you want to create with cultural heritage, but you will lack the insights in how feasible this will be on a technical / digitisation level. Dare to tackle both.

Anything Else?

If you feel we missed anything in our submission, feel free to contact us! It’s a complex and multifaceted project, so we hope we made it insightful on how the project is moving forward on an innovation level.

Project Pitch

Supporting Videos

Year: 2020
Level of Government: National/Federal government


  • Implementation - making the innovation happen

Innovation provided by:


Date Published:

2 January 2023

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