oPEN Lab – a success story by and for local residents
How can we design energy positive residential neighborhoods – or residential neighborhoods that generate more energy than they consume – in practice? That was the question initially asked in the oPEN Lab project. The goal of this project – which runs until May 2026 and is also being developed in Tartu (Estonia) and Pamplona (Spain) – is to work with local residents to prepare the residential areas of New Texas and Waterschei for the future and turn them into an innovation hotspot where new processes, technologies and services can be tested and optimized in real conditions. Specifically, in consultation with local residents, 27 homes will be renovated and equipped with new, carbon-neutral technologies. Living comfort for the residents will be guaranteed at all times. At the neighborhood level, we are also providing installations such as a district battery, which will help ensure that the neighborhood uses optimally its own green energy.
The strength of this project is that the local residents themselves are central and help think about the future of their neighborhood. Dorien Aerts, project coordinator of the oPEN Lab project in Genk, points out the importance of the involvement of local residents: “If we want the energy transition to succeed in the future, we need the citizens. It is therefore very important to us that they contribute to this story, and they do so with great enthusiasm! But we are already looking beyond this neighborhood alone: with the insights we gather here, we can also support other housing companies and local governments. Furthermore, we are working with companies – from local start-ups to multinationals – to develop and test innovative products and services in the Living Lab, which can be marketed locally and globally.”
Structural cooperation agreement
Because the project has already led to many interesting perspectives, and we definitely want to continue this story with a lot of positive energy between all stakeholders involved, recently VITO/EnergyVille and Wonen in Limburg have signed a structural cooperation agreement. With this they commit themselves to continue working on the rollout of sustainable neighborhoods even after the oPEN Lab project.
Myriam Indenkleef, general director of Wonen in Limburg: “Wonen in Limburg, like all housing companies in Flanders, faces an enormous challenge to prepare its patrimony for 2050. From our role in the innovative living lab, we want to learn about the most suitable renovation strategies, so that we can then apply them elsewhere in our patrimony. The fact that the oPEN Lab project has already yielded so many new insights and is also finding much enthusiasm among our local residents gives us energy to continue looking at new sustainable initiatives after this project. Moreover, the approachability and social cohesion that one does not immediately associate with innovation, but which are maximally expressed within oPEN Lab, can serve as a stimulus for renovation projects all over Flanders.”
For the research organization VITO/EnergyVille, investing in the energy transition of an existing neighborhood with “real people” is a logical next step in the research agenda for energy transition in the built environment. Inge Neven, CEO of VITO: “We can no longer view homes as individual buildings, and the energy transition therefore requires a more integrated and collective approach to neighborhoods in which interaction with the energy system will become much more two-way. Wonen in Limburg is the ideal partner for this innovation project, after all, they manage the buildings and have a strong relationship with the residents. Without them, this project, which connects technical and social innovation, would not be possible.”
Open Thor living lab
With the cooperation agreement, oPEN Lab will become a structural part of the Open Thor Living Lab – the innovation hotspot spanning Thor Park, Nieuw Texas, the Waterschei garden district and KRC Genk. The heating network, DC grid and data platform now being rolled out within Open Thor could thus eventually be extended to the residential areas of Nieuw Texas and Waterschei.
“To realize the energy transition, it is not enough to come up with innovative technologies, these must also be successfully marketed as a product. Therefore, at EnergyVille we are committed to developing a Living Lab, where companies can develop and test their products and services in a real setting. I am extremely proud that the local residents of New Texas and Waterschei are now also a structural part of that Living Lab and help shape energy innovations as true pioneers. After all, they are crucial to putting the pieces of the puzzle of the energy transition together,” summarizes Gerrit Jan Schaeffer, general director of EnergyVille.